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Canine Influenza was discovered in the United States as the cause of respiratory disease outbreaks involving thousands of greyhounds at race tracks in several states from 2003 to 2005. It has since spread to at least 30 states. Originally a disease that afflicts horses, the virus mutated about 40 years ago and began infecting dogs ever since. “It is highly contagious,” says Dr. Kimberly May of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Dr. May stresses that there is no need for panic, but encourages dog owners to be aware of the dangers of Canine flu. “You know what dogs do when they meet each other,” she said, “they are going to sniff the head and they are going to sniff the rear end.”
Exposure to H3N8 is highest in kennels, shelters, pet stores, dog shows and other communal settings. Although dogs of any age, bread, and health status are susceptible, puppies, old dogs, and dogs with pre-existing health issues are especially at risk. Veterinarians say that virtually all dogs that are exposed to the virus become infected. About 80% of them can show symptoms such as cough, sneezing, nasal discharge, and some ocular discharge. Coughs typically last 2 to 3 weeks. 20% of dogs can become seriously ill, developing bronchopneumonia and secondary bacterial infections. Dogs with pneumonia have high fever, respiratory distress and in some cases severe hypoxia. If untreated, such conditions may lead to death.
It takes about 7-14 days for dogs to mount the initial antibody response to the H3N8 vaccine. About 2-4 weeks after the first $20 inoculation, a booster shot is given. The vaccine protects dogs for a year. Vets say that the shots may not prevent infection altogether, but efficacy trials have shown that the vaccine significantly reduces the severity and length of illness.
Dr. Dean Cerf at the Ridgewood Vet Hospital sent out letters to his clients to inform them about Canine Influenza and to recommend that they bring in their dogs into his clinic for shots. “The virus can persist for 2-4 days in the environment,” he says, which means that contact with balls, clothes and even our hands spreads the disease.
Fox dropped by a dog run a couple of miles from the Ridgewood clinic to ask dog owners whether they had heard about Canine Influenza. Most knew about the problem, but several said that they were not worried about their beloved pets getting sick. They had the same arguments that some of us humans make about fighting disease on our own to build resistance and concerns about possible side effects. Regardless of whether or not dogs get inoculations this season, Dr. Cerf says that pet owners should watch their dogs closely. And if any symptoms develop, they should immediately seek the expertise of a veterinarian.