One of the common questions accompanying the onslaught of calls I’ve taken today is "How do you diagnose influenza in pets?"

Clinical signs, such as sneezing, coughing, fever and lethargy, are not useful for diagnosis. Influenza can produce highly variable disease, ranging from almost none to very severe – so you can’t look at an animal and say it has influenza just based on the clinical signs. We don’t know much about H1N1 influenza in different animal species (including pets), but this type of influenza can probably cause a wide range of disease in animals as well (at least in those it can infect).

The presence of someone in the household with influenza should get you thinking about flu in a sick pet, but it is far from diagnostic. Many, many people have influenza, but very few pets do. There are many other diseases that can produce signs similar to influenza in pets. The health of people in the household is an important thing to know, but we can’t jump to conclusions based on the household history alone.

Laboratory testing is required for the diagnosis of influenza, and there are a few options:

  • PCR testing of nasopharyngeal (throat) or nasal swabs, or fluid collected from the trachea: This molecular test detects influenza virus RNA. This is the fastest test and it is most sensitive when samples are taken early in disease. This is the main option for diagnosis at this time.
  • Serology: This involves testing blood for antibodies against influenza. Two samples are taken 10-14 days apart. If the antibody level rises 4-fold or greater, that is indicative of influenza infection. This is considered the most reliable method of diagnosis of influenza in many species but takes time. It is not currently a viable option for pets because tests for pets are not available.
  • Virus isolation from nasopharyngeal or nasal swabs, or tracheal fluid: Samples are inoculated into eggs to try to grow the virus. This can take quite a while and isolation of the virus can be difficult. This is a method used by specialized labs with laboratory containment conditions appropriate for this virus and may not be readily available.