Do You Get a Flu Shot? Does Your Dog?

By Dr. Beth Williams

Just like people, dogs can be affected by different strains of influenza, a highly contagious respiratory infection commonly known as the Flu. There are two strains of influenza known to affect dogs. They are identified as H3N8 and H3N2. After exposure to the virus, dogs may exhibit such signs as high fever, listlessness, coughing, sneezing, and a runny nose. The H3N8 form of the virus has been in the US since 2004 and has spread throughout the country. H3N2 influenza has only been around for a few years but has been diagnosed in ALL states except North Dakota, Nebraska, Alaska, and Hawaii. More importantly, recently there have been cases as close as Conroe!

Canine flu can present in a mild form or a more severe form. With the mild form of the flu, dogs develop a soft, moist cough that persists for 10 to 30 days. They may also be lethargic and have reduced appetite and a fever. Sneezing and discharge from the eyes and/or nose may also be observed. Dogs may also have a thick nasal discharge, which is usually caused by a secondary bacterial infection. Dogs with the severe form of influenza develop high fevers (104?F – 106?F) and have clinical signs of pneumonia, such as increased respiratory rates and labored breathing. Pneumonia may also be present due to a secondary bacterial infection.

Canine flu is a highly contagious virus. It is estimated that 80% of dogs exposed to the virus will contract the disease. Of the 20% that do not show symptoms, some will still be infected and shred the virus that can infect others. The incubation period for the virus before the dog shows symptoms is generally 2 to 5 days. During this time, dogs infected with the flu may be contagious without showing any signs at all. Fatal cases of canine influenza have been reported, primarily due to a secondary pneumonia infection. The fatality rate is below 10 percent. In dogs, the flu spreads the same way as it does in humans. It is most commonly spread by direct contact (sniffing, licking, nuzzling), through the air (coughing and sneezing), and contaminated surfaces (shared water bowls or toys).

If your dog has a cough or is feeling sick, you should see your veterinarian, don’t ignore it. Canine flu is very contagious so inform your Vet Clinic of your concerns when making your appointment. They may want to take some precautions to prevent exposing other pets before your dog enters the building. The tests and treatments your veterinarian might recommend depend on the severity of the illness. For mild disease, the veterinarian might take samples to identify the cause, but only treat the signs. For more severe cases, chest X-rays are often taken to look for pneumonia. Dogs with severe disease can require hospitalization with oxygen and fluid therapy. Just as in humans, the very young and seniors, especially those with compromised respiratory systems, are more likely to have severe signs of illness.

The American Animal Hospital Association and the World Small Animal Veterinary Association recommend vaccination for canine flu in “Social Dogs”. This is their term for dogs that interact with dogs other than those in their own home. This would include dogs that go to day care, dog parks, grooming facilities, competitions, training classes, or boarding kennels due to their higher risk. Dogs that spend most of their time at home or that rarely come into contact with other dogs have a lower risk. You should discuss whether or not to vaccinate these pets with your Veterinarian. As with human flu shots, a vaccine for one strain of the flu doesn’t help prevent another strain. Therefore, you must make sure that you get a bivalent vaccine, that is a vaccination that protects against BOTH forms of flu. As with most infectious respiratory disease viruses, the vaccine does not protect completely against or eliminate the virus, but it does greatly reduce how ill your dog will become and will lessen your dog’s ability to transmit the virus to other dogs. Two vaccinations are required to begin protection. These are an initial injection followed by a booster given three to four weeks later. The second vaccination should be completed at least three to four weeks before the dog goes to anywhere like a boarding kennel or dog show. After that, only a single annual vaccination is required to protect your dog. In addition to vaccination, preventative measures to limit or prevent exposure are very important. Lifestyle plays a significant factor in the risk of getting canine flu. Don’t let your dog socialize with coughing dogs.

Remember, the best preventative measures are to limit or prevent exposure and to protect your dog through vaccination.

Remember, your family Veterinarian can help guide you through your pet’s health care!