There’s a virus going around Philadelphia that is definitely for the dogs.
The region is in the midst of an unusual outbreak of canine influenza, a highly contagious virus that can mirror symptoms of “kennel cough,” according to local veterinarians, who first noticed a trend of dogs testing positive in early January.
While vets may have seen “one or two cases” in past years, the recent uptick is worrisome, said Stephen Cole, a veterinarian and microbiologist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
“This has been abnormal for us,” Cole said. “Influenza, at least in our region, has been pretty rare, and the concern is that it is so much more both transmissible and infectious [than kennel cough].”
Here’s what you need to know about “dog flu” and how to keep your furry friend healthy:
What is canine influenza?
Canine influenza is a viral infection that primarily affects dogs, but can sicken cats, too. Currently, two strains have been identified in the United States: H3N8 and H3N2. The latter was first identified in America in March 2015 among ill dogs in the Chicago area. Prior to 2015, cases of canine H3N2 influenza virus were contained to South Korea, China and Thailand. Both strains can be traced to influenza strains known to infect animals other than dogs, such as birds and horses, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
“We’re not 100% sure which strain is circulating in Philadelphia right now, but we’re working on figuring that out,” Cole said. Veterinarians can test for the virus, much like a PCR test for COVID-19 in humans, though a dog flu test can cost $38 per nasal swab or more.
What are the symptoms?
The illness is typically mild. Symptoms include runny nose, sneezing, eye discharge, and “a dry cough very similar to kennel cough,” Cole said. Fewer than 10% of dogs get seriously ill. Owners should bring their dogs to the vet if they have trouble breathing, refuse to eat or drink, or become lethargic. The dog may require an antibiotic to treat severe respiratory infection. Canine influenza also can make your dog more susceptible to bacterial pneumonia. If symptoms are mild, Cole recommends plenty of rest and fluids.
How does canine influenza differ from kennel cough?
Kennel cough, which is more akin to a human cold, is the colloquial name used to describe a group of bacteria and viruses that are common in dogs and circulate regularly, Cole said. Unlike kennel cough, cases of canine influenza in the Philadelphia area have been rare until recently.
How contagious is canine influenza?
Very. It spreads through droplets when dogs cough, bark and sneeze. It can also spread by surface contact, including clothing and hands. “So virtually every dog that is exposed to influenza can become infected,” Cole said. Dogs that regularly mix with other dogs — at boarding facilities, day cares, dog parks, grooming places — are most at risk. Dogs can also pick it up at the vet’s office, Cole cautioned, so alert your veterinarian before an appointment if your dog has a cough.
Can it spread to humans?
It’s unlikely. Canine influenza A viruses are different from seasonal influenza A viruses that spread annually in people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We can’t say ‘no’ for sure, but it’s never been reported before and is considered very, very low risk,” Cole said.
It has been known to jump from dogs to cats, however. In 2016, cats at a shelter in Indiana were diagnosed with H3N2 canine influenza, believed to have been transmitted by infected dogs. So try and keep your feline family members away from your sick dog, Cole said.
Is there a dog flu vaccine?
Yes. The vaccine for canine influenza is not 100% effective at preventing infection, but reduces the likelihood of getting the virus and the risk of serious symptoms. The best way to prevent canine influenza, however, is to keep your dog home and away from other dogs, at least for the next several weeks while the virus is circulating locally, Cole said. If you’re going on vacation and plan to board your dog or if your dog goes to day-care during work hours, he recommends getting the vaccine.