Lately we’ve seen an inordinate number of dogs having a bad hair day. There’s a simple explanation for that: Their owners have canceled their grooming appointments. There’s a simple explanation for that, too: canine influenza.
In case you missed it – perhaps you just returned from a long vacation on a remote Polynesian island – there has been an outbreak of dog flu in the Midwest. Almost 2,000 dogs have been affected, with at least eight deaths reported. It is now classified as an epidemic. The Chicago area has been hit the hardest.
In April we started an email campaign to tell you about the disease: about how it causes a cough, low-grade fever, lethargy, nasal discharge, watery eyes, sneezing, and a lack of appetite. We told you it was similar to kennel cough. But unlike most cases of kennel cough, the flu can make dogs very sick, with some needing supportive care such as hospitalization, IV fluids, and antibiotics. At the time, the culprit appeared to be the H3N8 viral strain of canine influenza.
Then some smarty-pants scientists at Cornell and the University of Wisconsin made a startling discovery: This wasn’t the old garden-variety flu, but a new strain, related to the Asian influenza virus (A H3N2). Our existing vaccine probably didn’t provide much benefit as a preventive for the new affliction. This was big news, and there were updates almost every day in the newspapers or on the Internet. Nevertheless, we got plenty of phone calls. The most common query was, “Should I vaccinate my dog?”
Vaccines for Bordetella (kennel cough) and canine influenza are non-core, or “lifestyle,” vaccines, meaning they’re optional based on a dog’s exposure risk. We advise our clients on a case-by-case basis as to whether their pet needs them. The Bordetella vaccine is usually required by boarding kennels, puppy classes, groomers, and doggy day-care centers. Until now, those providers haven’t required the flu vaccine, but that might change.
This flu outbreak caused severe economic hardship for many kinds of pet professionals. I applaud those who did the right thing and closed their doors during the worst part of the epidemic. But they lost plenty of income, and they won’t soon forget it. Be prepared for some of them to start requiring a flu shot before you cross their threshold with your four-legged friend.
Why continue to use the existing flu vaccine when it doesn’t protect dogs from the new Asian flu? One reason is that the original H3N8 strain might also have been a part of this outbreak. Another is that the vaccine might confer some cross-protection against the newer Asian variety; nobody knows yet whether that’s the case.
Most epidemics eventually fade away, and we hope this one is no exception. But even then, none of us knows if or when it will emerge again in the Midwest. Until the outlook improves, using the existing vaccine isn’t a bad idea if you’re going to board your dog this summer. Keep in mind that there are two vaccines in the series, two weeks apart, so your dog won’t have immunity until one month after you start.
You can bet that every major veterinary pharmaceutical company is scrambling to develop the first vaccine that is effective against the Asian strain of influenza. Will we recommend immunization with this for certain patients? Stay tuned; I’m not prepared to commit to yet another vaccination for your dog. And I’ll base my recommendations on science, not hysteria.
In the meantime it looks like the risk of flu is still present, but so far we in Lake County have been lucky. It’s okay to carefully dip your toe in the water again. Board your dog if you must, but make sure the kennel hasn’t had any recent cases of influenza. Check out DogVacay.com or Rover.com if you’re interested in in-home boarding.
I’m still reluctant to endorse dog park, but we can’t keep our little buddies away from them forever. Ask your pet’s other professionals whether they’re carefully screening the dogs they take in. One thing they should be asking their clients is whether the dog has been boarded within the past two weeks. (Sorry, Fido, you’ll need a two-week quarantine.) If you’re satisfied, let your pooch have a nice day at his doggy day care. And take him to the groomer! He’s a little grungy, and he needs a haircut.