Suburban vets on 'red alert' for dog flu

Rush your coughing, sneezing dog to an animal hospital in Arlington Heights, and your four-legged friend will be whisked away from the front entrance.

If vets suspect dog flu - an unrelenting strain that emerged in the U.S. only last year - Fido will be isolated in a building across the street from Care Animal Hospital's main facility and examined by technicians wearing masks and gowns.

"It's very, very contagious," says Dr. David Aul, the hospital's owner.

And still prevalent.

The hospital typically sees a dog believed to be sickened with canine influenza every other day, Aul says. Nationwide, the H3N2 strain continues to spread, with almost 30 states - most recently, Texas and Washington - reporting infected dogs.

Closer to home, suburban veterinarians urge pet owners to consider getting their dogs vaccinated, especially if they frequent kennels, doggy day cares or groomers and risk exposure to the virus.

"It's a social dog disease," says Dr. Rosemarie Niznik, president of the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association.

How dog flu spreads

The Chicago area was the epicenter of an outbreak that began early last year. Exactly how H3N2 entered the U.S. is unknown, but a group of dogs that passed through O'Hare International Airport tested positive last year after the animals reached their destination, researchers said.

"The virus is still circulating rather broadly in the Chicago area," said Dr. Ed Dubovi, director of the virology laboratory at Cornell University's Animal Health Diagnostic Center, where researchers helped identify the strain behind the outbreak.

Since early March 2015, more than 1,600 samples sent nationwide to a group of diagnostic labs have tested positive for H3N2, according to Cornell. Illinois ranks the highest, with 820 confirmed cases.

That tally is likely far higher, researchers say, because pet owners may opt against testing. Regardless of an official diagnosis, treatment remains the same and can include fluids and antibiotics for secondary infections.

The H3N2 vaccines - first available in the fall and made by several manufacturers - are far cheaper than what pet owners would spend on trying to treat a sick dog, said Dr. Donna Alexander, administrator at Cook County's Department of Animal and Rabies Control. Fees vary, but at Care Animal Hospital, each of the two boosters costs $40, given three weeks apart, Aul said.

The veterinarian community hopes the vaccines reduce the amount of virus that ends up in the environment. It's easily spread when dogs cough and sneeze, living on surfaces for up to two days and on human clothing for up to 24 hours, the American Veterinary Medical Association cautions. Dogs can shed the virus for as long as 24 days.

That means pet owners and clinic must be diligent about cleaning and quarantining dogs, veterinarians say. VCA Aurora Animal Hospital added a second isolation ward last year to handle an influx of dogs with the flu, said technician supervisor Becky Vaughan. For "a good eight weeks" in 2015, at least one patient was admitted in the hospital.

Now, the VCA has seen at least two suspected cases in recent weeks.

"We're kind of on red alert for any coughing dogs at this point," Vaughan said.

Staying vigilant

Unlike human influenza, there isn't a season associated with the dog flu. But veterinarians brace for an uptick when pets owners are traveling and kenneling their dogs during holidays and spring break. Pet owners should consider vaccinating their dogs four to six weeks before boarding for the boosters to take effect, a spokeswoman for Buffalo Grove-based Veterinary Specialty Center said.

If dogs do get sick, symptoms tend to be more severe than kennel cough and include coughing, poor appetite, fever and difficulty breathing. Other dogs might not show any signs but can still spread the virus.

Canines typically recover in up to two weeks, though some can develop serious cases of pneumonia.

In Cook County, the strain has led to 11 reported deaths last year, said Alexander. Most of those cases involved young dogs with developing immune systems or older dogs with declining immune systems, she said.

Veterinarians hope educating pet owners about the symptoms and availability of vaccines translates into fewer dogs getting the flu, said Niznik, president of the Chicago VMA.

"We still have to be vigilant," she said, "because we're still hearing more cases."

  Vets encourage pet owners to vaccinate their dogs, especially if they frequent boarding facilities and doggy day cares. Several manufacturers make H3N2 vaccines. Mark Black/
  The American Veterinary Medical Association's website gives pet owners tips on protecting dogs from canine flu. Mark Black/
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