What is canine influenza? Everything you need to know to protect your dog

It’s not just humans getting hit with the sniffles this winter.

A rapid increase in the number of documented cases of canine influenza, or dog flu, has been a cause for concern among veterinary experts and owners recently in the United States.

According to Merck Animal Health USA, since December, new cases have appeared in California, Colorado, D.C., Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia.

TODAY.com spoke to veterinarian Dr. Cynda Crawford, who is a clinical assistant professor of shelter medicine at the University of Florida, and Dr. Edward Dubovi, a virologist who served as the director of a veterinary virology unit at Cornell University for 38 years. Both offered advice and tips on how to learn more about the contagious respiratory disease and best practices for prevention and treatment.

What is dog flu, or canine influenza, and how does it spread?

Dog flu, or canine influenza, is a contagious respiratory disease in dogs generated by Type A influenza viruses, and two strains of influenza exist. One is the H3N8 virus, and the other is an H3N2 virus.

The National Library of Medicine defines H3N8 as a subtype of the Influenza A virus and is the primary cause of equine influenza. It emerged in greyhounds in the U.S. in 2004.

According to Crawford, H3N2 is the new, current virus. H3N2 emerged in the U.S. in 2015, and it's currently causing alarm for veterinarians and dog owners.

Canine influenza rapidly spreads from one infected dog to another through respiratory droplets from coughs, sneezes, and barking, says American Veterinary Medical Association.

What are the symptoms of dog flu?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, signs of canine influenza include cough, runny nose, and fever. Crawford noted that other symptoms such as fatigue, eye discharge, and reduced appetite could be signs that your dog might have influenza as well.

While it may seem tempting to brush off what appears to be cold symptoms in dogs, Crawford says that when it comes to canine influenza, taking signs seriously early on is crucial. Being able to identify symptoms and taking swift action to seek treatment can help your dog from worsening and can keep the disease from spreading to other dogs.

How serious is dog flu?

Most dogs that come down with canine influenza will suffer the typical flu symptoms mentioned above, which can persist for up to 21 days, though some dogs may have asymptomatic infections, according to the AVMA.

Crawford says that in some cases, however, canine influenza will progress to pneumonia, similar to when people get the flu and should be treated with the same care.

“There is a significant proportion of dogs that will progress to pneumonia, just like people infected with flu,” Crawford explains. “These dogs with pneumonias may require in-hospital care, more intensive care to help them recover just like people with pneumonia due to human influenza virus infection.”

Fortunately, the AVMA describes the mortality rate for canine influenza as being low.

How can you prevent your dog from getting the flu?

Both Crawford and Dubovi emphasize that education is key to preventing the spread of canine influenza and keeping your pup healthy.

If you have a dog-about-town — meaning your pup goes with you to stores, attends doggy care or obedience classes, and spends time at dog parks — keep yourself informed as to whether or not canine influenza is circulating in or near your community.

Dubovi says that keeping track of where the disease is popping up can be as simple as firing up your phone or computer.

“You can go out there and just do Google searches,” Dubovi says.

However, if avoiding crowded areas with various dogs is unavoidable, Dubovi suggests looking into getting a canine influenza vaccine for your dog.

According to the American Kennel Club, vaccines are available for the two known strains (H3N8 and H3N2) of canine influenza, and dogs can now receive a single vaccination to prevent both. Vaccines will take three to four weeks to provide immunity, and dogs will need a booster shot two weeks after receiving the first vaccine.

Just as humans are advised to receive the flu shot every year, dogs can get vaccinated by their veterinarian to provide a higher level of protection from infection.

Is dog flu contagious to humans?

No human infections with canine influenza have ever been reported.

However, canine influenza has infected cats, Crawford notes, citing an incident in which the flu broke out at a shelter among its dogs and caused respiratory illness in the cats.

Are there tests available for canine influenza?

Yes, tests are available to confirm if your dog has H3N8 and H3N2 canine influenza virus infection.

If you’re concerned that your dog may have been exposed, might be ill and are aware that an outbreak has happened in your community, Crawford recommends calling your veterinarian to find out if testing should be done and how to proceed.

Also, if you feel compelled to take your dog to an emergency veterinarian or clinic, Crawford says to keep in mind that canine influenza is easily spread, and bringing infected dogs into a clinic could spread the disease more. When given a heads-up, veterinarians can prepare a clinic by clearing visiting dogs from the path of an infected dog or can arrange to meet and treat a dog in their home or in the parking lot of a veterinary center.

How do you treat a dog with the flu?

If your dog has canine influenza, the CDC says that treatment will largely involve supportive care. Break out the water and pillows to help keep your pup hydrated and comfortable.

If the flu has progressed to pneumonia, dogs may be required to stay in the hospital to receive IV fluids, antibiotics, and in some cases, oxygen therapy.

Crawford says dogs infected with the flu should be restricted to in-home isolation for at least three weeks and notes that a “dog may recover and look healthy again after two weeks, but it’s contagious for at least three weeks.”

This article was originally published on TODAY.com