Forget about H1N1 for the moment. Let’s talk H3N8.

Now that more states have experienced this nasty strain of the Canine Influenza Virus (there was an outbreak in Virginia last week and now New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Colorado are seeing it) the so-called “dog flu” is again in the news media.

Despite the occasional lull in the general press, you’ll be gratified to hear that for us veterinarians, Canine Influenza never left the spotlight. Thanks to the Veterinary News Network (VNN), I’ve been keeping abreast of all this disease’s twists and turns, geographic and otherwise.

First, a little background (courtesy of VNN, of course):

  • “Canine Influenza (H3N8) is a novel canine virus first identified several years ago in groups of racing dogs in Florida. Although the virus has spread to 30 states, it is still not common in most pets.
  • It appears to be more of a problem in a few isolated areas of the country and in shelters and kennels where dogs are housed closely together. Although all dogs are at risk, most cases have been found associated with these situations.
  • The Canine Influenza Virus (CIV) is a different virus than the avian or human flu and it has not infected any humans.
  • The virus apparently mutated from an equine strain of influenza. Influenza viruses can mutate. While rare, we do seem to be seeing more of such mutations. Five different mutations were needed to make this particular species jump from the horse to the dog.
  • Canine Influenza is deadly to about 5% of dog infected with the disease. In addition, when the flu is diagnosed in a shelter, they are likely to euthanize all dogs in order to stop the spread of the virus.
  • Consequently, the total mortality rate is about 8%, four times the mortality rate of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic in humans, a significant fact!
  • The primary symptoms in a dog are a cough and a high fever. If you see any such symptoms you should visit your veterinarian. It is important to know that there are many less severe diseases that show similar symptoms.
  • Currently the treatments we have are supportive care and antibiotics, even if a dog gets this flu virus, it is most likely it will recover with good care from your veterinary hospital.”

Despite the high recovery rate for well-treated pet dogs, Canine Influenza is nonetheless a huge concern for veterinarians. This is especially true when we're treating kenneled dogs and pets from rescue and shelter environments. Yes, dog parks are always a threat. But with the high percentage of well cared for pets in attendance, it wouldn’t keep me from taking my dog out for a well-deserved romp.

One novel possibility for those of you whose dogs are at a higher risk is the new vaccine recently devised to halt the dog flu’s progress. Now that it’s been tested in 700 dogs (none of which displayed any untoward effects post vaccination), the vaccine has received conditional approval by the FDA. Which means that any veterinarian who wants to start using it can do so as soon as the manufacturer (Intervet/Schering-Plough) sets the price and starts shipping (supposedly any day now).

The vaccine isn’t 100% effective, though. Like your standard, yearly flu shot, this inactivated virus-based vaccine can help stem the spread while reducing the severity of an individual’s viral infection. It’s a helpful start, right? I’d say it’s a no-brainer for a rescue or shelter. But whether it will fly in general practice is another story. (For my part, I’ll be waiting for some more safety data before using it even on my at-risk patients.)

The good news is that we’re making progress. Next on my wish list...a widely available quick test for H3N8. This is especially important for veterinarians like me because if the possibility of CIV is there, my current option is an expensive test performed at a faraway lab with a wait time that might not make it worth the effort...and that price! It's a non-starter if my patient’s recovering anyway. And they almost always will when clients follow our directions.

Still, knowing is better than not knowing. The presence of an accessibly inexpensive rapid detection process is the key to understanding how widespread the disease might be among individual dogs in the non-kenneled, non-sheltered real world.

But for now, for the average dog owner? Be aware. But don’t be scared. And keep your eye out for more news.