State veterinarian Robert Gerlach recommends getting your canine companion to a veterinarian immediately if it shows any signs of respiratory illness.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
While many people nervously watch the news for the latest details on the deadly "bird flu" sweeping across Asia, many pet owners also are watching the spread of a "dog flu" across the U.S.
The dog flu refers to canine influenza virus, a highly contagious respiratory disease in dogs that has been tracked to a virus that has infected horses for decades.
The canine influenza virus first drew attention in 2003 when it made the jump from horses to dogs and swept through kennels of racing greyhounds in several states in the southeastern U.S.
The virus quickly spread to companion dogs in shelters, humane societies, boarding facilities and veterinary clinics in 11 states from Florida to as of earlier this month Oregon and California.
"We have had no reports of canine influenza virus in Alaska," said state veterinarian Dr. Robert Gerlach from his office in Anchorage last week.
However, with dog agility enthusiasts and show dog owners flying to the Lower 48 to take part in competitions and the dog mushing season just around the corner which brings mushers from Outside, it may only be a matter of time before the virus reaches the state.
Complicating the matter is that the symptoms of this disease mimic Kennel cough a common canine ailment. The first sign is a cough that may last for several weeks, followed in some dogs by lethargy, a fever and thick nasal discharge.
Like kennel cough, canine influenza appears to be an airborne infection, so direct physical contact between dogs in not required to pass the germ.
"Since the pathogen is new and not widespread yet, diagnosis is still difficult," Gerlach said.
Because this is a newly emerging pathogen, all dogs are susceptible to infection since they have no naturally acquired immunity.
So far there is no vaccine to induce immunity. This means that virtually 100 percent of dogs exposed to canine influenza become infected.
Fortunately for pets and their owners, there is a silver lining to this dark cloud. Most dogs diagnosed with canine influenza experience a mild form of the disease and the fatality rate is very low.
"Between one and five percent of all dogs infected will die," Gerlach said.
All pet owners should take adequate precautions to ensure their dogs don't add to the percentage, he said.
Gerlach said the best way to do this is for kennel operators and pet owners with multiple dogs to create a good health and biosecurity plan.
"The foundation of a good health plan is to have a good rapport with a veterinary clinic nearby," Gerlach said.
He explained veterinarians can evaluate a kennel's management plan, how dogs are housed and fed, and if the existing vaccination schedule is the most effective, since for sled dog and show dogs, it may be best to vaccinate, or boost vaccinations, immediately prior to a competition.
A biosecurity plan takes the health plan a step further and may best be understood as a strategy of risk management.
"Disease prevention is always more cost-effective than control and treatment," Gerlach said.
He explained kennels should have a separate, isolated quarantine area and emergency treatment protocol for dealing with dogs suspected of being ill. This area also can serve as a temporary home for newly acquired animals that are awaiting diagnostic testing.
"Animals in this separated area should have their own feed and water bowls that are cleaned separately from the rest of the kennel with their own sanitary products. There also shouldn't be any going back and forth between the two areas. The healthy animals should be fed and cleaned first and the sick or suspected animals fed and cleaned last," Gerlach said.
He said by doing this, it greatly reduces the chances of germs being transmitted on hands, clothes, boots or cleaning tools, such as rakes and shovels.
Gerlach also suggested that kennels in remote areas, where it may be difficult or impossible to get to a vet right away, should have an emergency treatment protocol kept on hand that is developed with a veterinarian.
Gerlach recommended that anyone who suspects they have a dog harboring canine influenza should make an appointment with a veterinarian immediately.
Time seems to play a factor in the diagnosis and treatment of this disease.
"A person who sees a dog with a respiratory disease shouldn't wait. It needs to be caught early. Get to a vet. Let them know why you're bringing the dog in, because they may not want you to just walk in the front door, where there is a risk of exposing other dogs to the disease," he said.
Although all dogs are at risk of canine influenza, so far there is no evidence this virus has jumped to humans or that it will jump to humans.
Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper, and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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