There were several more reports over the weekend in follow up to the canine influenza outbreak at dog shows in Florida early last week. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, associated cases were then found in North Carolina, and have now been reported in 11 states, no doubt from dogs that were at the shows in Florida (and Georgia) and unwittingly brought the H3N2 canine influenza virus (CIV) home and spread it to local dogs. Two deaths were even reported in North Carolina, but details were not provided so it’s difficult to determine exactly what role influenza may have played in these outcomes (i.e. these dogs could have had other complicating conditions resulting in more severe disease).
So the question now being asked is, what should dog owners do if they had plans to take their dogs to shows in the affected states, or anywhere else for that matter?
If owners want to go to such events, they have to accept that there is increased risk that their dog(s) could get sick. Period. But that actually applies to any canine group setting, anytime, anywhere, and CIVs is not the only infectious disease risk. If they’re really worried about CIV then they probably shouldn’t go at all, but they should probably also never take their dogs to the dog park either in that case, because there are similar risks. However, if attending a dog show or other group event there are some measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of infection. One way to think about it is that dog flu is spread very much like human flu, so strategies to avoid it are very similar as well, such as:
- Don’t let your dog have close contact with unknown dogs, especially dogs that are sneezing, coughing or otherwise sick (but remember that healthy dogs can shed CIV as well if they’re either incubating or recovering).
- Don’t share food/water bowls, toys, blankets or grooming supplies with other dogs, as these items could be fomites for pathogens. Washing or laundering such items can also help decrease contamination (especially, for example, upon returning home (or better yet, just before leaving the event)).
- People can also be a fomite, so it’s important for the owners to pay careful attention to hand hygiene (e.g. use hand sanitizer often), especially if they handle/touch other dogs, in order to avoid transferring pathogens to their own dog(s).
- Vaccine is definitely worth considering, but this should be a discussion between veterinarian and owner in advance. The CIV vaccine is certainly not perfect, and it does have its shortcomings (just like human flu vaccine), but it can still help and the risk associated with vaccination is otherwise low. Dog(s) attending shows and other events should definitely by up-to-date on all their core vaccines as well (including rabies!).
Not all areas (in the US or otherwise) are the same risk for CIV. Outbreaks tend to be localized, but as just demonstrated by the consequences of the Florida dog shows, outbreaks can very rapidly spread to other areas with the movement of dogs. Owners should contact the organizers of the specific show to ask what the situation is in the area. If there is an increased risk of CIV, the show organizers would ideally be alerting attendees and taking additional precautions at the show to decrease the risk of transmission (e.g. increased cleaning and disinfection protocols, management of participants to limit mixing of dogs, etc), assuming they decide that “the show must go on” despite the risk.
There is an excellent technical paper on risk reduction strategies at canine group events that was published last year (Stull et al, JAVMA 2016). It is geared more toward organizers of such events, but would also be a good reference for veterinarians that may be involved in some way. It covers infectious disease risks in general, including but not limited to CIV.
The other important thing to remember is that in most young, healthy dogs (hopefully most show dogs fit in this group) disease from CIV is relatively mild and resolves without complications, so even a dog did get sick, it usually just means giving the animal some down time at home and ensuring it does not come in contact with other dogs during the risk period for shedding (which could be a few weeks). In reality, any time owners return with a dog from a show (especially outside of their local area), that dog should be kept separate from other dogs (both on and off the property) in case they picked something up but have not yet developed signs. A couple of weeks would be ideal, but even a few days or a week (especially for CIV, which has a relatively short incubation period) would be better than nothing.
With canine flu, as for any infectious disease, there are always different factors that increase or decrease the risk of infection in a given situation, some of which we can control to some degree, and others which we can’t. The key is to find the balance so that group events can still take place, but the risk is reduced to an acceptable level for the participants. As several of the articles about this outbreak have mentioned, now is not a time to panic, but it is a time to take precautions.