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Understanding the Chicago Dog Flu Outbreak

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When Chicago veterinarians saw a huge jump in what appeared to be canine respiratory cases this spring, few people could have imaged what was about to happen: A canine influenza virus (CIV) outbreak that caused thousands of dogs to get sick, closed down several small pet businesses, postponed rescue events, and eventually temporarily shut down five Chicago area shelters. It ended up being a rare case of the Asian dog flu— H3N2—a strain of dog flu that had not been previously detected in the United States..

Chicago is known for its fun pet events, plethora of doggie day care facilities, and lots of dog-friendly green space. In a city where many dogs don’t have a yard of their own, all of these dog-friendly options are normally a good thing. However, with the presence of this new flu, our city’s fondness for the four-leggeds quickly became a problem.

Part of the issue is the way this illness is spread, according to Matt Schnabl, DVM, of Veterinary Specialty Center and VSC at Illinois in Chicago. “Like many illnesses, dogs are contagious prior to showing symptoms,” he says. “The big difference is that this virus is airborne. Both leptospirosis [and] bordetella have incubation periods and are contagious, but direct contact is needed for dogs to be at risk.”

“This situation is very unique. There probably is no other contemporary infectious respiratory disease like this,” reports Jill Lopez, DVM, senior specialist of drug safety at Merck, who has been closely involved in the flu task force and public education effort. “This is the first time this virus has been found in North America. Since [the outbreak in Chicago], H3N2 has been found in Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, California, New York, Massachusetts, Alabama, Texas, and New Jersey.”

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The Asian dog flu is related to the avian flu, while previous dog flu outbreaks in America were H3N8, which is related to the equine flu. Currently, there is a vaccination for the H3N8-strain of the flu, but it is not known how effective it will be for treating the Asian strain. Despite the differences, veterinarians are recommending that dogs still get vaccinated.

Both types of flus can be spread by direct contact with respiratory discharge from infected dogs via a cough or sneeze, and with contact with contaminated objects. Due to the ease of transmission, the number of cases soared within a matter of weeks. Vets and animal ERs were packed, and several doggie day care facilities closed down to disinfect and to prevent the spread of the disease. According to a spokesperson for Dr. Donna Alexander, director of the Cook County Department of Animal & Rabies Control, there have been more than 1,700 reported cases and eight deaths directly linked to the flu this year.

The outbreak also has had a chilling effect on rescue organizations and shelters. Adoption events and dog-friendly fundraisers were revised, postponed, or cancelled. For the first time in 21 years, The Anti-Cruelty Society was forced to make the difficult decision to cancel their biggest fundraiser of the year, Bark in the Park. They instead promoted iBark, a virtual version of the walk, for the month of May. Other groups opted to hold events as planned, but go dog-free—Young at Heart Pet Rescue transformed their Mutt Mosey into a “Mutt-less” Mosey.

Just as veterinarians began to see a decline in the number of new cases coming in, larger shelters were hit hard. Chicago’s Animal Care and Control, The Animal Welfare League, South Suburban Humane Society, PAWS Tinley Park, and Chicago Canine Rescue all temporarily closed their doors after their facilities were hit by the dog flu. Recently though, the tide has apparently turned. The warnings are coming down from Chicago’s dog parks, and pet-friendly events are slowly starting up again.

“The number of cases have died down, but I don’t think it’s time to breathe a sigh of relief just yet,” adds Schnabl. “We still don’t have a reliable vaccine for this strain and we are still seeing some cases. I would advise people to proceed with caution because there are still risks. The good news is that a lot of the dogs that did get sick recovered.”

Remember to be cautious, despite the apparent deceleration of the flu’s spread. If your dog exhibits any symptoms, such as coughing, nasal discharge, fever, or loss of appetite, see your vet immediately.

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