By Dr. Lyn Lewis of Wayside Animal Hospital
In the last few weeks my office has gotten a lot of calls about the canine flu epidemic in Chicago. It has been reported that well over a thousand dogs have been infected, and quite a few have died. Now it has been confirmed in four states and suspected in 10 more. It is unknown how many dogs may now be infected. Dogs have been presenting with a fever, lethargy, and coughing. The cases that have become
serious develop a bronchitis which leads to pneumonia. So far they have determined the death rate to be right at 0.5% which is five out of every 1,000 dogs.
We first identified the canine flu virus in 2004. The virus was a H3N8 variant which we still use today to vaccinate pets. The vaccine is used heavily by some veterinary clinics and is required at some boarding facilities. Since the Chicago outbreak started in March all companies who are manufacturing the canine flu vaccine have run out. To be honest, I have carried the vaccine for the last three years but only recommend it for dogs that go on the show circuit, board heavily, or socialize frequently at dog parks. I get calls daily from other clinics in the area to borrow some doses of the vaccines to protect their client’s pets. Here is the problem though, with the most recent outbreak they have isolated a new flu strain known as H3N2. It is highly unlikely that the H3N8 vaccine will have any protection against the new Chicago H3N2 strain!
The big question is, how are we going to deal with this potentially large flu outbreak? The answer is complicated. The easiest answer is to develop a new vaccine, but that is costly and I don’t think drug companies will invest enough money to come up with a new vaccine.
It may turn into a situation, like humans, were we will need a different vaccine every year depending on prevalent strains. Even though the current canine flu vaccine is sold out I think it will be out of production at some point because of the lack of efficacy.
Our first line of defense is to recommend not taking dogs into the infected Mid-West. If you must travel there with your pet keep it away from other dogs while in the region. Avoid large gatherings like dog shows unless it is critical that your dog compete. Secondly, I would ask your local boarding facility about how they are actively preventing disease in their kennels. Do they know the flu symptoms, do they require current vaccines, how do they disinfect the kennels, and finally what is their level of socialization with the other dogs?
At our office we are working hard to identify dogs that are coughing or dogs in social situations that are running a fever. We are asking them to wait in the car and we are trying to do the histories and partial physicals there before determining if they can enter the building. We will probably be doing more testing and send out samples to the lab because it is our duty to properly identify the causative agent to protect our state from this new flu strain. We are working harder to disinfect the rooms and our kennels.
In closing, there is no direct treatment for the canine flu virus. All we can do is treat the symptoms and support the patient until its own body can develop antibodies to kill the virus. In this case the saying is true; an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Education and managing pet social situations is very important for the next few months. If you have any questions I would recommend talking to your local veterinarian.