Canine Influenza Spreads to 13 States: Are Dog Parks to Blame?

06/05/2015 05:25 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016


Word on the Canine Influenza A H3N2 Virus (CIV) is that it's spreading. Now identified in 13 states, this disease is caused by a rapidly replicating strain of organisms that invade a dog's respiratory passageways, causing body ache, fever, exhaustion, nasal discharge, coughing and sneezing.

Nobody wants his or her dog to suffer, but what exactly is the risk of contracting CIV? You might be wondering:

➢ How many dogs are affected and in what states?
➢ Should I avoid kennels, day cares and dog parks?
➢ What are the symptoms - and is it fatal?
➢ Is there a vaccine?

Cornell University's Animal Health Diagnostic Center is one organization tracking the CIV disease. The biggest numbers of reported CIV cases are coming out of Chicago, the hometown of dog expert Steve Dale who keeps a regular tab on the city's efforts to control the outbreak. While other states have reported infections, the overall percentage of affected dogs is low. And although this strain of canine flu is highly contagious, it isn't generally fatal unless, if left untreated, it can morph into something else like pneumonia. So far, 8 dogs have died in the Chicago area alone; 2 directly from the virus, the other from secondary infections.

So why the media frenzy? People and dogs get sick all the time - what's all the panic about?

Viruses are adaptable micro-monsters capable of changing their molecular structure so they can potentially jump between different species. Although rare, a modern day example is the Equine Influenza H3N8 Virus, which, after a 40-year run through the horse population, mutated into a canine form. In 2009, 5 years after the initial outbreak, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) approved a canine flu vaccine to protect against this H3N8 strain, although it's unclear if it will protect dogs from the new A H3N2 strain.

The current Canine Influenza began as an avian (bird) virus that evolved into a strain that first started affecting dogs in Asia in 2007. It's unclear how the virus found it's way into the states, and specifically to the Chicago area, but by April 2015, well over a thousand dogs had contracted the virus.

The Center of Disease Control and Prevention's big concern is that this strain of flu could mutate yet again into a virus transmittable to humans. Ever on the lookout for the next big outbreak they're tracking the virus's progress. Anyone suspecting their dog might be ill should bring their dog to their veterinarian for evaluation and testing. Canine Influenza H3N2 is easily detected through a respiratory panel.

My friend and colleague, Dr. Jeff Werber, and I recently discussed CIV, its symptoms and remedies. The flu itself often resembles a cold with nasal discharge, fever, coughing and sneezing. Appetite decreases, and tiredness prevails, as an infected dog will reserve its energy to fight the disease. If you notice any of these symptoms in your dog, don't force him to engage in normal activities. Isolate him from other dogs, and speak to your veterinarian immediately. Although medication can't counteract the A H3N2 virus itself, secondary infections can develop that may demand immediate medical attention to prevent prolonged illness and possible death. If your dog gets sick, provide him with comfortable, uninterrupted resting places and plenty of clean water.

CIV spreads through direct facial contact with infected dogs and indirectly through surfaces an infected dog has touched such as water, toys and clothing within 24 hours. Of most concern is that 20-25 dogs who contract the virus show no signs of illness, although they still shed and spread the virus.

If a case of H3N2 is reported in your area, Dr. Jeff stresses avoiding locations where dogs come together, such as dog parks, poorly maintained kennels, or training groups. Even elevators and stairwells can harbor the infection.

Does that last sentence leave you reeling - do trips to the dog park shape your day? Are you a dog school junkie? If so, don't hang up your leash just yet! So far - outside of the Chicago hotspot - the reports of infection are few and far between. While it's important to take some early precautions--carry your own portable water dish and avoid dogs that appear to be reactive or in poor health--there is little concern of rampant contamination. Even in Chicago, the alert has lowered from an epidemic to a concern. Dog parks, day care centers and kennels have reopened, and dog owners are once again being encouraged to socialize their pets.

And as far as cancelling your dog's summer kenneling plans, visit his potential lodging and speak to the staff first. Are they aware of flu-like symptoms? Do they screen their residents and require vaccine records before making reservations? Sanitation is key--all diseases are easily controlled with anti-bacterial cleaning.

Flu--no matter what your species--is a drag, and while your dog can't tell you how he's feeling with words, a little observation goes a long way. Not eating, runny nose, sneezing and coughing are signs your dog's not well, but other illness can cause similar symptoms, so don't panic. A quick trip to the veterinarian will reveal what's wrong.