Canine Influenza: What’s All the Fuss About?

It’s been all over the news lately – canine influenza. What is this bug and where did it come from? Is it a real threat to pets, or just media hype? I’ll try and answer some of those questions in this post.

The influenza viruses cause a condition known as the “flu” from the shortened version of the virus name. The flu, in many species, has similar symptoms – fever, coughing, runny eyes, muscle aches. There’s no such thing as the “stomach flu,” incidentally. That’s a whole different set of viruses unrelated to the influenza virus that causes gastrointestinal problems.

The virus causing all the recent panic is called influenza A, and goes by the scientific number of H3N8 – there are so many subtypes of influenza viruses that a rather complex numbering scheme is needed to keep track of them all. The current outbreak has been worst in Chicago, and about seven years ago there was a similar outbreak in racing dogs in Florida.

There’s a lot of rumor and misinformation swirling around, and a lot of pet owners are getting very worried, in some cases for no good reason. While this is a serious condition, and a few dogs have died from it, responding with panic doesn’t help anyone.

Here are a few facts about H3N8 that you should know:

  • It is very infectious from dog to dog, but people cannot catch it.
  • Those at most risk of serious consequences or death are the very young, the very old and those with weakened immune systems.
  • Most animals with H3N8 will survive with time and supportive care. The fatality rate is only about five percent.
  • There is no specific treatment – supportive care with fluids and oxygen (if needed) or antibiotics for secondary bacterial infections may be needed for severe cases.
  • Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so don’t demand them from your vet unless they feel there is a valid need.
  • A vaccine does exist, but it’s efficacy is largely unproven right now.

Given that most dogs will survive, I think a lot of the panic is media hype. If you have a dog who is coughing, but otherwise active, eating and not having trouble breathing, in most cases this will not need medical attention. If you have a puppy with a cough, an older dog who is coughing or a dog with an abnormal immune system due to cancer or other chronic illness, see your vet if anything seems amiss.

If your dog is not eating, is having trouble breathing or has thick greenish nasal discharge (which can be a sign of pneumonia), then have your vet take a look. Let them know ahead of time that you are coming in and what the signs are, so they can take steps to limit the spread of infection.

Don’t worry too much – just be informed, aware and don’t let the new reports scare you.

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