There has been lots of news lately about a newly discovered virus, called dog flu, that has killed dogs in at least seven states. Many veterinarian and pet owners are worried because there is no vaccine available and dogs do not have immunity to this new virus.
Where did Dog Flu come from?
This canine flu was first discovered in racing greyhounds in Florida in 2004. Now scientists are watching this virus spread across the east coast.
In what scientists call a “very rare event” this virus has jumped from horses to dogs. Equine influenza virus (horse flu) has been in horses for nearly 50 years. Now it appears that due to the close contact between horses and greyhounds at racing tracks that this virus has jumped species. At this point the CDC reports that there has never been a single documented case of human infection.
Dr. Crawford at the College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Florida, started investigating an outbreak of acute respiratory disease among racing greyhounds in the state in 2004. Using genetic analysis she was able to determine it was similar to equine influenza virus. It is believed that the new virus may have mutated from an equine influenza strain, she said
How deadly is Dog Flu?
Dr. Crawford, an immunologist at the University of Florida, said in an interview that the disease is only deadly in rare cases, about 10 percent in puppies and old dogs, but is of concern because it is spreading rapidly.
Between January and May 2005 there were respiratory disease outbreaks among about 20,000 greyhounds at 20 tracks in 11 states, from Arizona to Massachusetts. Samples from dogs at seven Florida tracks revealed they had been exposed to dog flu. It was also indicated in greyhounds in Arizona and one in Texas.
Dr. Crawford said that between April and May 2005, the deadly flu had also crossed over to domestic dogs. But she noted that in 80% of dogs the disease is mild – with the animal having only a cough and runny nose.
However, as with human flu, in a minority of cases there may be complications and the dogs can develop pneumonia. The mortality rate is currently between 5% and 8%.
What about testing and vaccines for Dog Flu?
There is no test currently that veterinarians can use to accurately detect the flu in dogs. The team says work on a vaccine for the new dog flu has been under way for a few months.
The virus is too new for any dogs to have developed immunity to it, so pet owners should watch their dogs carefully for any symptoms. "The concern is that the dog population on the North American continent is wholly 100 percent susceptible," Crawford said.
I want to stress that despite the rumors that are out on the Internet and other such sources, this disease is not as deadly as people want to make it," Crawford said. She says she receives more than 30 calls a day from concerned veterinarians.
Currently the flu is showing up in Florida animal shelters, boarding facilities, and veterinary clinics, mostly in Broward, Dade, and Palm Beach counties.
Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles H. Bronson alerted the public last week to the canine respiratory disease.
The bordetella vaccine, which protects dogs against kennel cough, does not work against the flu, Crawford said. Development of a vaccine for canine flu is currently underway.
What can I do to protect my dogs?
Nina Morano of the CDC said owners should take common sense precautions to protect their dogs from the virus:
• If your dog exhibits any signs of respiratory illness, immediately see your veterinarian. Tell the doctor if your dog recently boarded at a kennel.
• Use a boarding kennel you are familiar with.
• Stay on the lookout for announcements of disease outbreaks in your area.
"It's a time to be very watchful and take a reasonable approach, but certainly not to panic," Morano said.
For example, says Crawford: "I am taking my two Pekinese to be groomed next week to a groomer that sees many dogs during the day."Like most flu viruses, it can be spread by air, as well as by contact, and the populations of dogs most at risk are those in shelters, kennels, boarding operations or other situations where a lot of dogs are housed under one roof, she said.
The disease could also spread in parks where pet owners let their dogs off the leash to socialize, vets say. Dog parks are a perfect playground for contagious diseases because when animals share toys and water dishes, they also are sharing germs.
The symptoms of the disease include coughing and sneezing, and there is concern that it could be spread in vet waiting rooms, Crawford said.
"When you bring a bunch of dogs together under one roof, if a dog happens to be infected, then the virus will spread rapidly," she said. She compared the situation to what happens with young children in school.
Dog Flu is a new disease and currently scientist do not know everything about the disease yet. So take a common sense approach to protecting your dog, especially if they are young or old. Also ask your veterinarian about dog health, and if there has been any cases reported in your area.
Check out the Centers for Disease Control website for the latest on dog flu.