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Posted on 04-16-2015

Canine Influenza (or dog flu) is not in our area... for now.

We are all relatively familiar with the human flu virus and how the seasons change regarding the type of virus (strain) affecting us from one year to the next, vaccines for the flu, and to some degree what to expect... but what about the "dog flu"?

The CDC highlights the flu virus being known in dogs since 2004.  It was the H3N8 strain and seemed to originate from horses. Periodically there have been small "outbreaks" of the virus in various parts of the country and it has been an issue primarily seen at dog races, dog shows, boarding/grooming locations, day care centers, etc. Basically think high number of animals in a more confined environment. As with people, this upper respiratory infection spreads with contact/aerosolization of droplets from one dog to the next.

Upper respiratory infections in dogs are not new, in fact most of you will recognize kennel cough as a common disease vaccinated for on a regular basis. Upper respiratory disease in dogs can be more aptly described as a syndrome (one specialist suggested Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex, or CIRDC) instead of an infection. What a syndrome means is there is not only 1 organism or infection causing the problem and multiple organisms can be involved. There have been as many as 20+ organisms isolated in upper respiratory infections in dogs - including viruses and fungal organisms outside of the typical bacterial infections. We often discuss kennel cough as a syndrome because the vaccine does not combat ALL of the organisms that have been identified, only a few key organisms that have been isolated in a larger majority of cultures. These have been identified as possible primary pathogens (with others taking advantage of the situation of the compromised immune system) and when we vaccinate for them we are trying to reduce the frequency of the organisms to overwhelm the immune system and the severity of the infection.  In the case of upper respiratory infections, the vaccines do not prevent the disease from occurring, just reduce the frequency and severity.

Very specific information about the flu virus can be found at the following sites.  AVMA, CDC, Center for Food Safety and Public Health (Iowa State University). We will not go through and re-hash all of that information, but give you the most current recommendations on vaccination, recognition of the disease, and treatment considerations.

So the burning question.. should I vaccinate my dog with the influenza vaccine? 

The quick answer at this time is: NO.

First and foremost, the vaccine has not been recommended for areas where the virus has not been found. If this disease becomes a more endemic (meaning its all over, like we think of the parvovirus) then we will likely change the recommendations. The vaccine requires, like many others, 2 rounds given 3 week apart.  Please remember that it takes 10-14 days for a vaccine to reach full effect (also true of the kennel cough vaccine).  That means from the time you start giving the vaccine it will take AT LEAST 5 weeks to provide full immunity. Let me repeat, for any vaccine, PLEASE plan ahead and get them done at lease 2 weeks prior to when they are needed! Waiting until the last day to give a vaccine in order to go to the groomer or for boarding has limited benefit!

Secondly, in areas with the flu, the vaccine has been recommended for those whose lifestyle put them at risk, NOT for all dogs. The locations where this exists include dog parks, boarding, grooming, day care, dog shows, dog races, etc.  Again, think a conglomeration of dogs together in a close proximity to each other. At this time, the area of concern is Chicago. If you have a dog and you are planning on taking him or her to the Chicago area, then we should talk and determine if it is worth the risk and is absolutely necessary for your dog to make the trip. Did you remember to allow enough time to get the vaccines done and build a sufficient immune response?

The third reason vaccination has not been highly recommended is based on our understanding of the vaccine itself. Originally it was created for the H3N8 virus and the latest virus has been found to be the H3N2. As you may know from the human perspective the changing strains of the virus means the vaccine must change to help provide protection. Cross protection is not guaranteed. The cost of creating and testing new/different strains of the vaccine are high, but in the human population there are enough individuals receiving the vaccine to justify the expense. That is NOT the case in the dog world. The vaccine given at clinics today is the same strain that was found several years ago and it has not changed. Furthermore, the research on the vaccine shows that it decreases the frequency and severity of getting ill and can decrease the shedding of the virus, but is does not show that it prevents disease.

Simply speaking (please see the references above for more details) the clinical signs associated with the disease are very similar to other upper respiratory infections. Coughing, sneezing, runny nose, fever, and lethargy are the most common. Testing for the influenza virus is possible and if we believe it necessary, we can collect samples and prove whether it it a typical viral/bacterial infection vs. the flu. Severe disease is not expected in most cases and the mortality rate for the flu virus has been reported to be in the 3-5% range.

Treatment for the flu is very similar to other upper respiratory infections; however, if a pet presents with some of the more severe signs we will consider additional supportive measures like hospitalization, respiratory treatments, fluids, and additional supportive care as needed. In most cases seen, the flu has been treated with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories at home.  Hospitalization has not been needed in all cases of the flu.

The bottom line is do not panic and at this time the vaccine is not recommended. We will keep everyone up-to-date if there are any cases found in the Wabash Valley area, if there are changes in the recommendations for vaccination, or if any further information becomes available. Do not hesitate to continue to ask questions and participate in discussions.

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