What You Should Know About The Dog Flu

Photographed by Balarama Heller.
There's been an outbreak of the flu this spring, but this time around it's not hitting people, but dogs! Yes, just like their owners, dogs can get the flu. And, just as in humans, it often causes problems like sneezing, coughing, and congestion. 

The new canine flu virus H3N2 has been infecting dogs in the Chicago area since March, affecting some 1,000 pups in the region (and a few outliers in other states). "The new virus has been in dogs in Asia since 2007, but it has never crossed into the United States before now," Dr. Richard Goldstein, chief medical officer at the Animal Medical Center in NYC, told Refinery29. While it started in Chicago, other cases have been reported in Alabama, California, Texas, Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin, Michigan, New Jersey, Iowa, and Indiana, according to a report from Cornell University. 

So, should you take precautions? 

Yes, if you're in Chicago, and if your dog is extremely young or old. "The good news is it's not a devastating infection that's going to cause tremendous numbers of deaths," Goldstein says. "It can cause a lot, and a lot of dogs will suffer, since it's not pleasant of have the flu, but the more severe cases will affect younger dogs or older dogs with other medical concerns."

Chicago dog owners should keep their dogs away from other dogs, especially large groups at dog parks, daycare, or groomers. "It only takes one dog," Goldstein says. "If there's a dog that goes to daycare and contracts the virus, and it goes into an elevator with another dog, it can be transmitted before critical signs develop." 

As for the rest of the country, he recommends double-checking with boarding or daycare facilities to see if there are any dogs from the Chicago area. The virus spreads with direct contact between dogs, "so for it to persist it requires many many dogs close together," he says. And, while there's no vaccine for the H3N2 strain, there is a vaccine for another strain of dog flu, H3N8.

While the chances of cross-protection are low, Goldstein recommends using the vaccine to prevent other respiratory diseases, helping to decrease the severity of the effects if your dog does catch the H3N2 flu. "Dogs that get severely sick from the flu tend to get sick from a secondary infection," he says. "If we can prevent those secondary infections with the vaccines we do have, it could help, if not prevent infection, at least make the disease a lot less severe." He recommends looking into vaccines for parainfluenza, bordetella, adenovirus type 2, and the H3N8 flu virus.

The last outbreak of dog flu, the H3N8 virus, started in 2004, with dogs in Florida who then spread it to New York and beyond. "It caused a lot of dogs to get sick, but most dogs had very mild symptoms, coughing and respiratory disease," Goldstein says. He sees no reason why this one would be any harsher. "It won't turn out to be tremendously devastating, although it might affect some dogs more than others," he adds. "But, hopefully within the next few months we'll have new vaccines that will cover this new strain."
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