By Darlene Stott
Published: 07/21/2017, edited: 09/07/2022
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There are two main forms of the herpes virus in humans: HSV-1 and HSV-2, responsible for causing cold sores and genital lesions respectively. You may not be aware, but current estimates indicate that over 80% of the population of the United States has at some point in their lives been exposed to the HSV-1 form of herpes. With such high rates of transmission, it is fortunate that the disease is relatively harmless, causing raw blisters to periodically appear around the mouth of the infected person.
HSV-2, meanwhile, is generally transmitted via direct contact with open sores around the genitalia of a carrier, making it much less common for people to become sick. However, given the relative ease with which the virus can pass between people, are dogs susceptible to it as well?
Can dogs get herpes?
Canines cannot get the herpes virus seen in people. Fortunately, the HSV-1 and HSV-2 viruses are able to live and reproduce in humans only. That said, there is a strain of the disease that is specific to dogs and, like their cousins, it is not transmissible between species either. However, the canine herpes virus is very dangerous to unborn and newborn puppies.
Does my dog have herpes?
The canine herpes virus can be much more dangerous to the host animal than the human-specific variations of the disease, meaning that prompt treatment is essential. This is especially true for younger animals, as the virus is currently one of the main causes of death for pups that have only recently been born. The main symptoms that infected animals will exhibit are visible weakness and distress, as the dog becomes disorientated and starts to experience gastrointestinal discomfort, which is often accompanied by pale-looking stools. Additionally, it would not be uncommon for you to observe discharge of lots of mucus from the nose, or even bleeding. Puppies will often refuse to feed, which can quickly lead to a deterioration of their condition and oftentimes death. When handling the dog, you may also detect a significantly lower body temperature than normal.
The virus primarily reproduces in areas of the dog’s body such as the tonsils, sinuses and throat, which allow the disease to be easily transferred from adult carriers of the virus (who often remain symptomless) to vulnerable infant dogs. However, this also means that a vet can quickly diagnose the disease by taking mucus samples from these locations for examination.
For more information on the behavior of the canine herpes virus, please visit our condition guide, Canine Herpes Virus Infection in Dogs.
How do I treat my dog's herpes?
If your dog has been diagnosed with canine herpes, it is usually advisable to start treatment as soon as possible, especially if they are only a few months old. This is because the virus can cause large amounts of disruption to the development of vital organs and the nervous system. The primary way in which the vet will try to cure the dog’s condition is via the use of antiviral medications such as acyclovir. Alternatively, antibodies harvested from an adult dog that has previously fought off the herpes virus can be injected directly into the pup, helping to shore up their defenses. You should bear in mind, however, that due to their relatively weak immune systems, younger animals will oftentimes not respond to treatment and will instead succumb to the disease.
The prognosis for adults, meanwhile, is much better – though care should be taken to make sure that they are no longer carrying the disease, as they could go on to infect other dogs. Recovery times vary, but can generally be placed between one and two weeks. That said, the full effects of the virus on an infant pup’s development may take several months to become apparent.
How is herpes similar in dogs and humans?
Although the herpes viruses that can be found in dogs and humans are vastly different strains, there are some characteristics that the two pathogens have in common.
In humans, contact with the blisters and sores that form around the mouth will often pass the HSV-1 variety of the disease to a new host. Likewise, in dogs, the virus will often be spread via the saliva or exhaled mucus and vapor droplets, making it imperative to keep an infected dog from using their mouth to interact with other animals.
Adult dogs infected with canine herpes will often have infected discharge leak from their genital area, creating the potential for the virus to be spread via sexual contact with other animals as well. In humans, the appearance of sores around the genitalia is a distinctive symptom of HSV-2.
Just as the herpes virus can easily prove fatal for puppies, the condition can also quickly kill human infants as well. In order to prevent this, strong antivirals are required as soon as possible.
In both species, the virus proves to be extremely vulnerable outside of the body, with the cells having a life expectancy of just a few hours if left on the surface of the skin. This means that close physical contact is often needed for transmission to happen.
How is herpes different in dogs and humans?
While the herpes virus may certainly appear at first glance to be surprisingly similar in both humans and dogs, there are some important differences between the two strains that should be kept in mind.
Generally speaking, humans infected with the herpes virus will never be able to rid themselves of the disease, even with antiviral treatment. Dogs meanwhile, do have a chance of beating the condition and not continuing to be carriers.
The sores that are the characteristic hallmark of HSV-1 and HSV-2 in humans do not appear on animals infected with canine herpes. That said, general inflammation of the genital area can occur in some adult dogs.
Unlike in humans, the canine herpes virus is not divided into two different strains with their own separate characteristics. Instead, only one main type exists, proving effective at infecting multiple organs and areas of the body at once.
According to studies dating back as far as 1971, there is a strong possibility that a dog that contracts herpes while pregnant runs a risk of having their fertility level compromised by the infection. This is because the virus can cause direct damage to the ovaries themselves, impairing their ability to produce healthy eggs.
Further testing using canine herpes on mice in the 21st century also found evidence that the disease can impact hormone levels, which may (during a reproductive cycle), in turn, affect a dog’s ability to become pregnant. This means that if the dog contracts the disease while pregnant or in heat, the chances of them producing a healthy litter of pups are slim.
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