An outbreak of canine influenza is occurring in San Antonio, TX, as this virus continues its strange and unpredictable movement through the North American dog population. In an article published on a local San Antonio news website, Dr. Michele Wright, a San Antonio veterinarian, reports 20 confirmed and 70 suspected cases over the past month. It’s not clear whether these are all from her clinic, nor is there any information about possible sources of the virus or the severity of disease. Dr. Wright also states that the virus has been identified in Austin and Dallas.

It’s not particularly surprising that canine flu has been found in Texas. It’s now been identified in at least 38 US states, as well as one Canadian province. An outbreak is not particularly surprising either in this case, because when a virus reaches a new area, it can easily cause widespread disease since it encounters a population of animals that don’t have any pre-existing immunity (i.e. antibodies) against it.

What’s strange about canine flu is how it has spread across North America. When it was first identified in Florida greyhounds in 2004, it seemed like it was going to spread widely across the dog population. It spread quickly at greyhound tracks and in clusters in Florida and in other states, but it’s subsequent spread across the continent was quite patchy – it caused only localized outbreaks in different states, instead of the catastrophic continent-wide epidemic that was anticipated. Whether this relates to the amount and type of direct contact between dogs (e.g. dogs are only infectious for a short period of time and an infected dog has to meet a susceptible dog during that time to continue transmission of the virus, otherwise it dies out), specific aspects of the virus in dogs (e.g. how long it is shed) or lack of recognition of disease in some areas (e.g. mild disease that doesn’t get diagnosed) is unclear.

We’ve been looking for canine flu in Ontario for a few years now, with no "success" (that is, we haven’t found it yet).

Are we flu-free at the moment? Probably not. I suspect it’s lurking out there, but it’s possible that it really hasn’t made it to Ontario – yet.

If it’s not here now, will it make it here eventually? Almost certainly. It’s taking longer than I expected but all it takes is one infected dog entering the country. With the amount of cross-border dog movement, it’s probably inevitable.

What about vaccination for canine flu? It comes down to risk of exposure and risk aversion. If flu is in the area, vaccination is a good idea. If flu is in adjacent areas, it’s also a good idea. If flu isn’t recognized in the area, it’s a matter of how much risk people are willing to take and thinking about higher risk situations, as described below.

What about vaccination in Ontario, or other places where the virus doesn’t seem to be present? It’s hard to say when to recommend canine flu vaccination. Certainly, vaccination of dogs traveling to areas where canine flu is or has been present is a good idea. Vaccination of dogs that engage in high risk activities such as going to shows or kennels is also prudent, since these are the places where we may see the firsts outbreaks if/when canine flu makes it here. Vaccination of low-risk dogs in the province is probably not necessary at the moment (unless people are very risk averse and don’t want to take any chances).

Why vaccinate?  It’s just "the flu"… This is an attitude that the human public health field battles all the time. Most people who get human influenza (humans can’t get the dog version of the virus) feel crappy for a few days and get over it. The perception that it’s only and always a mild disease keeps some people from getting vaccinated. However, thousands of people die from flu complications, particularly the very young and elderly individuals. Vaccinating everyone helps reduce the chance that these high-risk people will get sick. Also, while rare, serious (including fatal) infections can occur in otherwise healthy people. In dogs, there’s probably actually more indication to vaccinate if there is a realistic risk of exposure. Canine flu can cause classical flu-like disease, akin to the typical human case. However, severe (often fatal) pneumonia can also occur in otherwise healthy dogs. High rates of severe disease were reported initially when canine flu was first identified. It seems like severe disease rates have dropped, but it’s still a concern. I wouldn’t be surprised if severe disease is more common in dogs with canine flu than in people with human flu.

Whether or not to vaccinate is a discussion dog owners should have with their veterinarian, considering the risk of exposure, risk of severe illness and risk aversion. At the same time, people in areas where flu has not been identified need to be on the lookout for it, to ensure that it gets diagnosed promptly if it emerges, and that information gets communicated to veterinarians and the dog-owning public so that appropriate responses can be made.