Outbreaks of canine flu in other states have prompted some veterinarians to encourage New Hampshire pet owners to consider a flu vaccine for their dogs. (COURTESY)
Dog flu outbreak expected in NH
Canine influenza outbreaks have been reported in Vermont and Massachusetts. And Dr. David Stowe, president of the New Hampshire Veterinary Medical Association, predicts it's "only a matter of time" before an outbreak happens here.
The danger is that dogs here have no immunity to the new H3N8 virus, according to veterinarians. And that's why some are recommending flu shots for animals that go to day care, boarding, grooming, dog parks and other locations where dogs congregate.
"Dogs have never had influenza before," explained Stowe, a veterinarian with VCA Lakes Region Veterinary Hospital in Laconia, who recently treated a young dog for what he believes was the flu. "It makes it more likely that they may catch it if they're exposed to it."
Dr. Stephen Crawford, state veterinarian, said he hasn't received any reports of canine influenza. But he noted the illness is not a reportable disease, so he wouldn't necessarily hear about individual cases.
Canine influenza was first identified in racing greyhounds in Florida in 2004. Crawford said it spread to the wider canine population, apparently as retired racers were adopted into homes.
The contagious disease has now been reported in 39 states, including New Hampshire.
What makes it particularly worrisome, Crawford said, is that dogs here have never been exposed to the virus. "When the population as a whole has not been exposed or does not live with that disease organism, there's no opportunity for those animals to have developed any degree of immunity," he said.
A flu vaccine is available, which Crawford likened to "putting up a fence."
"The virus can still get over the fence, but it's going to have to work harder," he said.
And even if a vaccinated dog does get the flu, the duration and degree of symptoms are likely to be lessened, he said.
Still, Crawford said, "No vaccine is without risk." He recommends dog owners speak with their own veterinarians about whether it makes sense to have their pets vaccinated.
Dr. Stewart Ketcham of Upper Valley Veterinary Services in Lebanon said he's treated a couple of dogs he suspects had canine influenza, although that was not confirmed through blood tests.
But there have been outbreaks in neighboring Vermont. A recent survey by the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association found 23 clinics reported treating anywhere from one case to more than 15 cases.
So in his practice, Ketcham is recommending that people get their pets vaccinated if they have contact with other dogs.
"The tricky thing with this (flu) is they start shedding the virus practically before they have symptoms," he said. "So when you see it, it's already too late."
Ketcham said he expects the virus will cause more illness among breeds that have very small airways - "pushed-in-faces dogs" - and animals that have other medical conditions.
He did vaccinate his own dog, a Jack Russell-chihuahua cross named Loca.
Linda Baines, executive director of the NH Veterinary Medical Association, said her 9-year-old cockapoo Chloe also got a flu shot. Her vet, Cilley Veterinary Clinic in Concord, recently notified her that all dogs that come there for day care, boarding, grooming or hospitalization have to get the vaccine, which involves two shots and an annual booster.
Baines said canine influenza will be on the agenda for the next meeting of the NHVMA's executive board on April 1.
Stowe said he's been watching closely the northward spread of the emerging virus, which is believed to have jumped from horses to dogs.
Stowe said the mortality rate when the virus first appeared in dogs was about 5 percent, which is considered quite high. But he said viruses do tend to become less virulent over time.
Influenza is not to be confused with another respiratory illness, "kennel cough," which presents with just a cough. Dogs with flu can have runny noses and fever in addition to upper respiratory symptoms, Stowe said. "These are the things we've been watching carefully," he said.
He recently treated an 8-month-old dog that came in with a runny nose. He suspects it was the flu; the pup recovered in a few days. But just like people, dogs can develop secondary infections with influenza, including pneumonia, that can be serious, Stowe said.
And he's concerned about dogs getting both the flu and kennel cough at the same time.
Stowe said he fully expects to see a canine influenza outbreak here by summertime, especially in his area, where there are a lot of seasonal residents who come in from other states. "I think it's imminent."
That's in part because of how much more mobile dogs are today than ever before, he said. "Thirty years ago, if you pulled up to a stop light, nobody had a dog in their car," he said. "Now everyone has a dog in the car."
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is monitoring the canine influenza virus "very closely," according to cdc.gov. That's because, while there is no evidence the virus infects humans, influenza viruses are constantly changing, and this one could do so and spread to people, the agency noted.
"Such a virus could represent a pandemic influenza threat," the CDC stated.
Stowe said he's not too worried about canine influenza becoming a danger to humans. But he does expect to see more of these emerging "zoonotic" diseases, animal illnesses that can be transmitted to humans.
Still, he said, that's not a reason to get rid of your dog. "The health benefits of having pets far outweigh the disadvantages."