The canine influenza virus — or dog flu — is a serious and sometimes fatal respiratory disease that affects dogs. Although most North American cases have occurred in the U.S., four Ontario cities recently experienced outbreaks which, thanks to some deft public health interventions, were swiftly brought under control.

Symptoms of dog flu are similar to those of human flu – lethargy, fever, cough and, in extreme cases, pneumonia. It is transmitted via dog to dog contact. While humans cannot get the virus from dogs, humans can spread it to other dogs through their hands and clothing, where the virus can live for two days.

Prevention is key

Preventing the spread of infection starts with avoiding contact with sick dogs. “A dog can be infectious for up to three weeks, so dogs with suspected flu virus should be kept away from any canine group settings such as doggie daycare, boarding kennels, and dog parks until they are fully recovered,” says Dr. Jason Stull, Assistant Professor in the Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine at The Ohio State University.

If travelling with your dog, there are several things you can do to keep your dog safe from infection. “First, be aware of what’s happening from a disease standpoint, not only in your own area, but the area you’re going to,” says Dr. Stull. “That alone can make a huge impact in preventing the movement of the disease.”

Second, think about what your dog will be doing. “It’s probably not the best idea to bring that dog to a place where it’s going to have contact with lots of other dogs, especially if you’re just moving in and out of the area,” says Dr. Stull.

Finally, consider vaccinating your dog. The canine influenza vaccine is available in Canada, but to be effective it needs to be given two months before a trip, as it requires two doses, with adequate timing between doses and after the final dose. It also requires a yearly booster.

If your dog is showing flu like symptoms, contact your veterinary health care provider. If you are bringing your dog to the clinic, tell the staff you suspect they have the flu, so they can recommend appropriate precautions to avoid spreading the infection. “There have been a number of situations in the US where simply bringing an infected dog into the waiting room of one of these veterinary clinics resulted in an outbreak,” says Dr. Stull.

Healing starts at home

In many cases, a sick dog will recover well at home with a bit of rest, cough suppressants, and some tender loving care. “It’s much as you would do for preventing spread of the human flu,” says Dr. Stull. “Wash your hands frequently, avoid contact with other dogs and wait until your dog has fully recovered before letting them around other dogs again.”

As with any disease, prevention is easier than controlling its spread or treating a severe case. Therefore, it’s important for dog owners throughout Canada, and especially in Ontario, to be aware of this disease, know the risks, and take proper measures to ensure the safety of their pets. “Canine influenza can be extremely dangerous to other animals, including your own, so people need to take it seriously,” says Dr. Stull.