By Diane Levitan, VMD, veterinarian, and member of the Wag! Advisory Board
We all want our dogs to be happy and healthy. So, as human flu season approaches, you may find yourself wondering if your dog can get the flu and, if so, whether a vaccine can help just like with people? The answer to both of these questions is much like what your doctor may tell you: maybe!
Canine influenza, also known as “dog flu,” is a result of either the H3N8 or H3N2 strain of the influenza virus. It’s a highly contagious viral infection that’s easily spread from dog to dog by respiratory secretions. The spreading can occur as a result of barking, licking, sneezing, sharing water bowls, coughing, or even walking into a small space as an infected dog walks out.
The dog virus is most commonly found in clusters in certain areas and is easily spread when dogs are together in close vicinities such as at a dog park, groomer, boarding facility, or dog show.
Humans should be aware that the virus can stay on unwashed surfaces up to two days and can be passed on by unwashed hands for up to 12 hours. Those who are around multiple dogs should always wash their hands and surfaces to help stop the spread of dog flu.
The signs of the virus will vary from dog to dog, just like in humans who get the flu. Because it affects mainly the upper respiratory tract, symptoms you’re likely to see are:
A runny nose
Some cases of dog flu will progress to secondary bacterial infections that can result in severe pneumonia. And in other cases, dogs will develop fever, achiness, lethargy and, in some cases, vomiting and diarrhea.
Fortunately, it’s very rare to see a dog die from the flu. Still, a pet parent must offer support to a sick dog.
Keep in mind that 20 percent of dogs may not show signs of the virus, but will still be capable of spreading it. Dogs show signs from one to eight days after exposure, feel better in two to three weeks and will remain contagious for up to three to four weeks. Experts advise that infected dogs be quarantined for at least four weeks.
If your dog has any of these symptoms, you should take it to a veterinarian for further evaluation and supportive care. Not all dogs with these symptoms will have the flu virus. There are other viruses and bacterial infections that can cause similar symptoms.
There is a test for canine influenza, so your veterinarian can perform it to see if your dog has the flu or something else.
Getting appropriate care and isolating your pet are most important for any respiratory infection. Since it’s so contagious, let your veterinarian’s office know ahead of time if your pet has a cough or mucoid nasal discharge before coming to the office. This way they can prepare to prevent the spread of viral disease to other pets in the office.
Like the human flu, the canine influenza virus can change significantly over time. Still, there are vaccines available for these known strains that will protect your pet.
If your pet is in an area of a current outbreak or if your dog plays with other dogs at public places like a dog park, it’s a good idea to talk to your veterinarian about the flu vaccine.
As with any vaccine, they’re not without risks of reactions (mild to severe). Don’t let yourself be pressured to give your dog the vaccine if you feel the chances of exposure are low.
There are great resources on canine influenza that can be found on the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Don’t worry, the flu can’t be passed back and forth from human to canine. But if you catch the human version of the flu this season, you can always hire a Wag! walker to ensure your dogs are getting their exercise — and doing their business — even when you can’t get out of bed.