Risk management during canine influenza outbreaks


By Jamie Migdal, CEO of FetchFind

Do you remember the Great Canine Influenza Outbreak of 2015? (It was horrible.) Well, it’s baaaaack – there’s been an uptick in cases in various locations across North America this year. As always, it pays to be vigilant about risk management so that we don’t end up with shuttered boarding facilities, overwhelmed veterinary hospitals, and very sick dogs. 

There are two different dog flu viruses: H3N8 (first reported in the U.S. in 2004, with a vaccine available since 2010) and H3N2 (first reported in the U.S. in early 2015). H3N8 was originally an equine flu virus that jumped to dogs; H3N2 was originally an avian flu virus. There is no evidence that either strain can be transmitted to humans.

Everyone with a dog who goes potty outside will run the risk of meeting another dog who may be currently asymptomatic for the flu, but still contagious. Here are some tips for managing these interactions in a way that will minimize the chances of your dog becoming infected.

  • No greetings! There is a 2-4 day incubation period for canine influenza, and that perfectly healthy looking dog may be shedding the virus all over the place. Some dogs may have the flu but be completely asymptomatic. No greetings means no nose-to-nose, no saliva exchange, and no butt sniffing.  Since the virus is exchanged through respiratory secretions, stay out of sneezing range. If you live in an elevator building, pick up your dog and carry him outside if he’s small enough; this will keep him out of range of other dogs and away from contaminated surfaces on the inside of the elevator, in stairwells, and in lobbies or entryways.
  • Keep your dog under control at all times. This means a 6’ leash, shortened as much as possible when passing other dogs. If you’re using a 26’ flexi-leash, you’re not in control of your dog. If you think you don’t need to keep your dog on a leash because “he always listens to you”, then think again. You may be willing to risk your own dog’s health by letting him roam untethered, but it’s unfair to other owners to let your dog be Patient Zero just because you think he should be a free agent.
  • Good hygiene is your friend. Wash your hands, wipe your shoes, and clean your surfaces, especially if you have contact with other dogs. CIV can be spread by direct contact with infected dogs, by contact with contaminated objects, and by moving contaminated objects between infected and uninfected dogs. If you have a multi-dog household, take care of the healthy dogs before touching the sick ones, and keep them apart as much as possible.
  • Evaluate your risk. Canine flu shots are considered “lifestyle” vaccinations, and are highly recommended for dogs who go to daycare, boarding, dog parks, or play groups. A single dog who rarely leaves the yard will be at considerably less risk for infection.
  • Vaccinate. Whether you have a stay-at-home or highly social dog, ask your vet about vaccinations. It’s a two step shot (an initial shot and a booster a few weeks later), and if your dog isn’t already sick it can help prevent or mitigate the effects of the flu. You can get a single shot that covers both strains (called a “bivalent”); you’ll still need a booster in about three weeks, and peak immunity won’t kick in until a couple of weeks after the booster. My dogs tend to be a bit sleepy for about 24 hours after a vaccination, but to be honest I’ve never been able to tell if it’s because of the shot or because they’re grumpy about having been to the vet. Regardless, let your pup take it easy for a day or so after the vaccination.

How do you know if your dog has the flu? Well, sometimes you won’t know; it’s not unusual for dogs to show no signs of illness. But the usual flu symptoms include reduced appetite, lethargy, cough, runny nose, fever, and eye discharge. Most dogs recover in a few weeks, but if your dog develops a secondary infection it can lead to pneumonia, or, in rare cases, death.

If your dog is displaying any of these symptoms, or even just seems a little bit off, it’s always best to see your vet – and remember to practice good space management and hygiene while you’re in the waiting room. In addition to being contagious, sick dogs can be more snappish that normal, so you’ll want to keep a little extra space between you and the other pets. You can request to be put into an exam room or a separate waiting area to reduce the risk of contagion or dust-ups.

For more information about canine influenza, see articles on the AVMA and CDC websites.