What Is Dog Flu? Here's How To Protect Your Pup From Catching It

It's the peak of flu season, which means there is a very good chance some of you are reading this from a pile of sweaty blankets as you fight off the dreaded virus. If you're a dog owner, you may be wondering whether your dog can catch the flu from the shivering, achy cesspit your body has become. On that front, I have good news and bad news. I'll start with the bad news: Yes, dogs can come down with the influenza virus. The good news is that the fatality rate is low — less than 10 percent without treatment — and most dogs recover within a matter of weeks.

So what exactly is the dog flu? According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), canine influenza is a highly contagious respiratory infection in dogs. It's caused by the influenza type A, and two different strains have developed over the years. The first strain to show up in the United States, H3N8, appeared in racing greyhounds in 2004. Eleven years later, in 2015, the H3N2 canine influenza virus was reported in Chicago, after which it spread nationwide. Now, some veterinarians have warned of an uptick in cases around the country, including states like California and Pennsylvania.

The symptoms are similar to those experienced by humans. With a mild infection, dogs develop a "soft, moist cough" lasting for more than a week. They might sneeze frequently, run a fever, and eat less than usual.

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A severe infection is, well, more severe. The AVMA website explains that dogs with an acute infection "develop high fevers (104ºF to 106ºF) and have clinical signs of pneumonia, such as increased respiratory rates and effort. Pneumonia may be due to a secondary bacterial infection."

Although it doesn't spread from dogs to their human owners, the canine influenza is highly contagious between pups. According to the AVMA, the virus is so new to the United States that the dog population hasn't had the chance to develop immunity yet, so almost every dog who is exposed to the virus becomes infected. Around 80 percent show symptoms, which are usually mild. Like the human influenza, the dog flu is transmitted by coughing or sneezing. Unlike the human influenza, it is also frequently passed on by barking.

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None of this means your dog is doomed to catch the flu. Several FDA-approved dog flu vaccinations are available, and your vet can help you determine whether they're needed. According to the AVMA, these are considered "lifestyle" vaccines, meaning they're administered to dogs who are at risk for catching the flu. The association explains that this risk depends on how often your dog interacts with others.

"Dogs that are frequently or regularly exposed to other dogs – for example at boarding or day care facilities, dog parks, grooming salons, or social events with other dogs present – are at greater risk of coming into contact with the virus. Also, as with other infectious diseases, extra precautions may be needed with puppies, elderly or pregnant dogs, and dogs that are immunocompromised. Dog owners should talk with their own veterinarian to assess their dog’s risk."

Until veterinarians are able to determine how widespread the dog flu outbreak is this year, San Francisco-based vet Dr. Kyle Frandle told Mercury News that he suggests keeping your dog away from other canines if possible. (The AVMA, on the other hand, writes that as long as kennels and parks use proper infection control procedures, owners shouldn't worry too much.) AZ Central noted that the virus can live for up to 48 hours on surfaces, so clean dog toys and wash your hands regularly. Finally, if you notice your dog feeling lethargic, coughing, or showing any other symptoms of the dog flu, take them to the vet. Visits to the doctor aren't fun for dogs or their humans, but it's better to know what you and Sparky are up against this flu season.