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Getting the Poop on a New Dog Disease

Local Matters


Published November 30, 2005 at 12:30 a.m.

VERMONT -- Avian flu isn't the only bug people are buzzing about. H3N8, a.k.a. canine influenza, is already spreading up the East Coast. Like avian flu, this virus crossed the species barrier -- from horses to dogs. But unlike its scarier Asian cousin, this one's not a threat to human health, yet. However, the disease is fatal in a small percentage of dogs, and it's already appeared in other parts of New England.

Canine influenza is a highly contagious respiratory infection in dogs that was first identified in Florida last year. According to information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the pathogen has been around in horses for more than 40 years, and is believed to have jumped the species barrier when dog-track owners fed their greyhounds raw horsemeat. Since January 2004, the disease has afflicted 20 racetracks in 11 states, including Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The virus has also been identified in pet dogs in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, as well as in shelters and boarding facilities in several Southern states.

Symptoms mimic those of bordetella, or "kennel cough." In its severe form, it's accompanied by high fever and/or pneumonia. Because it's a newly emerging pathogen, almost all dogs, regardless of breed or age, are susceptible to infection and have no natural immunity. Virtually all dogs exposed to the virus will become infected, and nearly 80 percent will eventually show symptoms. Fortunately, most infected dogs contract a mild form of the disease. Dr. Cynda Crawford, a researcher at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, says the virus has "a very low mortality rate" -- about 5 to 8 percent -- and she cautions pet owners against believing the hype that's been circulating on the Internet.

Although no known cases of dog flu have appeared in Vermont yet, canine influenza is not a reportable disease, like rabies, and no health advisories have been sent out. But a spokesperson for the Agency of Agriculture says if vets or animal shelters were seeing it, the state probably would have heard of it by now.

Currently, there is no rapid test to identify canine influenza. A vaccine is still in the works and should be ready in the next few months. In the meantime, the CDC says dog owners shouldn't be overly cautious about having their pets in dog parks, kennels or dog day-care centers. But as with any respiratory disease, health officials recommend that dogs showing signs of the flu should be seen right away by a veterinarian, kept separate from other animals, and use different food and water bowls until the symptoms subside.