A contagious illness has been spreading across the city recently, infecting dogs and alarming pet owners.

In Philadelphia, cases of canine influenza, a transmissible respiratory disease found in dogs, have been on the rise this winter. Other regions in the U.S., such as North Texas and Minneapolis, are seeing an influx in the virus as well.

A possible reason for the current spike could be that many dogs living in Philly weren't previously vaccinated against dog flu, because it was more common in the southern U.S. That makes dogs in the region all the more susceptible to contracting the virus when they come in contact with it.

"We weren't seeing cases up here, so we weren't readily vaccinating dogs for it," Dr. Amber Karwacki, partner veterinarian at Callowhill Heart + Paw, said. "So I think the biggest reason for the spike is no one up here has really been vaccinated for it, so it's spreading like wildfire."

Canine influenza, also known as dog flu, is caused by specific Type A influenza viruses known to infect dogs. 

There are two types of dog flu viruses. The H3N8 virus was known to exist in horses for 40 years before it jumped species in the early 2000s. H3N8 now has adapted to infect and spread among dogs, and has been detected across the U.S.

The other type, H3N2, originated in birds before being detected among dogs in South Korea in 2007. The first H3N2 case identified in dogs in the U.S. was in 2015, and it has since been found in 30 states.

Symptoms include coughing, sneezing, runny nose and eyes, sluggish behavior, fever and changes in eating habits. In very severe cases, dogs can develop pneumonia-like symptoms, including difficulty breathing.

No matter how minimal the symptoms may seem, Karwacki suggests that pet owners call their vets to be safe.

"If it's mild, definitely call your vet," she said. "If it's mild, your vet might just have you stay home and monitor or they might bring you in."

As far as treatment, in serious cases vets may hospitalize the dogs, giving them IV fluids and medications to reduce fever or doing radiographs to check the chest for pneumonia. Veterinary hospitals are also evaluating the accuracy of rapid dog flu tests to help with diagnosing the virus. 

Veterinarians have been seeing the flu affect dogs "across the board age wise," according to Karwacki, but young or immunosuppressed dogs are at the highest risk.

For pet owners looking to shield their furry friends from illness, the dog flu vaccine does offer protection from the virus, but there is currently a shortage in the region due to the outbreak, causing a backorder amongst manufacturers. 

Once more vaccines can be secured, Karwacki highly suggests pet owners get their dogs vaccinated to prevent another outbreak. Until then, she recommends staying away from areas where multiple dogs could come into close contact.

"It's just like us when someone has a cold or flu — like sharing food bowls, water bowls, sharing toys, nose-to-nose contact at the dog park, or if you're an apartment building with multiple dogs in the same elevator nosing each other, can pass it that easily," she said. "It's unfortunate, it's kind of like COVID for dogs. You've got to kind of keep separated, keep a small circle. No sharing of food bowls or toys."

For active dogs who need more exercise, Karwacki advises pet owners to go on solo walks with their dogs or head to the dog park at less busy times.

Thankfully, the percentage of dogs infected with this illness that die is very small, and no human infections with canine influenza have ever been reported, according to the CDC.

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