Yet like humans, dogs contract these illnesses via contact with an infected individual, in this case another dog, and it doesn’t have to be nose to nose. “An infected dog that coughs can spread the virus 20 feet into the air,” says Cynda Crawford, Ph.D., D.V.M., Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program clinical assistant professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Dogs can also get sick indirectly, meaning that they pick up the virus from a contaminated surface like dog toys, bedding, food bowls, even human hands. Little wonder then that these illnesses run rampant among dogs in group settings (think daycare centers, shelters, and training classes). And although there’s no season for canine flu as there is for human flu, risk of exposure is higher during times when dogs or people are traveling more like Thanksgiving, Christmas and summer.
The difference between the flu and “cold”
Distinguishing canine flu from other respiratory illnesses that cause cold-like symptoms, namely kennel cough, is incredibly tough, largely because symptoms overlap, says Sanchez. When the flu is mild, it resembles kennel cough, characteristics of each being drippy or runny nose and dry, hacking cough.
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The flu, however, can become more severe with signs that include lethargy, lack of appetite, fever, and a moist cough, an indication of pneumonia. “After three to five days of coughing, 10 to 20 percent of dogs with flu spike a high fever because of pneumonia, leading to more rapid and troubled breathing, even less mobility and greater unwillingness to participate in anything,” Crawford says.
How to treat your dog for these illnesses
If your dog has kennel cough, the solution is rest and recovery. “There’s little need for these dogs to see the vet,” Crawford says. In some cases, vets might put dogs on a canine-specific cough suppressant and antibiotics to help prevent secondary bacterial infections. Expect her to take about a week to recover, although know that she could still be contagious for up to three weeks, which is why you should keep her away from other dogs during this time, Sanchez says.
However, if you suspect your dog has the flu, even if you’re not sure, call your vet, Crawford says. Your vet will most likely use Reverse-Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction to test for the flu—results can take three to five days, which means giving supportive care and avoiding social outings will be necessary while you wait. The vet may also want to treat the illness with antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infections, or prescribe medication to break the fever, cough suppressants, or even IV fluid if necessary, Sanchez says.
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If the flu has progressed to pneumonia, your dog may need to be hospitalized. Flu usually persists for seven to 10 days, but your dog can be contagious for up to 18 days. During that time, your dog should be isolated from other dogs, perhaps even the cats in your house.
One important point: When taking your dog to the vet, you’ll need special instructions for entering the clinic. “You can’t walk in with a coughing dog or you’ll risk infecting other dogs in the waiting room,” Crawford says.
Got a sick pup? Give him some special treatment by making these cheddar-bacon dog treats:
So how do you protect your pup?
Avoiding sick dogs is the obvious strategy—listen to local media or create a Google Alert to hear if there’s a flu outbreak—but that’s not always easy. Another strategy? If you have a highly social dog or worry that you’ll need short-notice boarding, consider getting your dog vaccinated against the flu, something many kennels and daycare centers now require.
Two vaccines exist, one to guard against the H3N8 strain and another for the H3N2 strain, which is currently the one dogs are most at risk for. Both are non-core vaccines, meaning non-mandatory. “Current guidelines suggest that while it’s not meant for every dog, the vaccine can benefit dogs with a social lifestyle,” Crawford says, adding that other candidates include older dogs and those with chronic health issues. Although the vaccine won’t prevent the flu, vaccinated dogs have less severe illness, recover faster, are less contagious, have a shorter contagion period and are protected against pneumonia.
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Dogs can be vaccinated as young as six weeks old and if this is their first time, will require two doses at least two weeks apart, Crawford says. If they’ve already had the vaccine in years past, they’ll need only one dose. Generally, 48 hours after the second booster, dogs are considered protected, but it can be longer, depending on the vaccine’s manufacturer, Sanchez says.
Just don’t panic if your dog does contract a respiratory illness or flu. “With the right care and watchfulness, most dogs recover well,” Sanchez says.