Veterinarians are urging Florida dog owners to get their pets vaccinated as a highly contagious strain of canine influenza spreads throughout the state.
More than a dozen cases of the virus strain have been confirmed in North and Central Florida since last week, including the Orlando area. The virus is not usually fatal, but untreated cases can lead to more serious and even life-threatening pneumonia.
READ MORE: Florida confirms first outbreak of dog flu
“There is an imminent threat for dogs to be exposed to this virus in this state,” veterinarian and University of Florida professor Cynda Crawford told reporters Thursday. “Now is the time for vets and dog owners to consider getting their dogs vaccinated as soon as possible.”
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The virus causes a frequent cough in dogs, as well as sneezing and a runny nose that lasts for about two weeks. But the virus is also highly contagious: Infected dogs can transmit the germs up to 20 feet by sneezing or coughing, and the virus can survive on objects like clothing, leashes or toys for up to 24 hours after contact. The virus can also be transmitted one-way to cats, though no vaccine for cats against H3N2 is approved for use.
Infected dogs should receive medical attention and stay home for at least four weeks, Crawford said.
Veterinarians at UF first found cases of the virus strain in dogs that had participated in dog shows in DeLand and Perry, Georgia, last month. Though Crawford said UF has so far confirmed cases circulating in show dogs, she said it is only a matter of time before the virus appears in the general pet population.
“I don’t know when, but it generally does spill over,” she said.
There may already be cases elsewhere she is not aware of, Crawford said, because there is no central agency for veterinarians to call and report incidences of the strain.
“I think at the University of Florida we’re probably just seeing the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the H3N2 strain of dog flu was limited to Korea, Thailand and China until 2015, when cases began occurring in Chicago and eventually several areas across the country. Another strain of dog flu, H3N8, had already appeared in Florida in 2004 at greyhound racing tracks.
Crawford advised dog owners to talk to their vets about having their dogs vaccinated, even if they do not show symptoms or are usually house-bound. “The price is far less than hospital care for a dog that gets a serious illness,” she said.
Though the vaccine does not completely prevent being infected with the virus, “the vaccinated dog that gets infected will be less contagious and will be contagious for a very short period of time,” Crawford said. Dogs that receive the vaccine are also less likely to develop serious complications like pneumonia.
The vaccine is also essential for eventually halting the spread of the virus, she said, by ensuring that there is enough immunity in the population to stop the virus from being transmitted further. In the United States, the virus has already spread to 30 states, she said, in part because dogs have no natural immunity.
Dog owners should also wash their hands regularly and be more aware of surfaces that may come into contact with infected dogs. Though Crawford said she would not necessarily suggest dog owners stop their dogs from socializing with other dogs entirely at places like dog parks, she suggested owners remain vigilant.
“I would encourage owners to refrain from having their dogs being around dogs that are coughing or have other signs of a potential respiratory infection,” she said. “Please don’t allow your dog to socialize.”
At Blanche Park in Coconut Grove, dog owner Leticia Kontoroff suggested that might be why it was unusually quiet for her Mastiff-Labrador mix Leo, who was the only pet there. She adopted Leo five months ago, but said the park was usually much more busy during their weekly trips.
“Usually there’s just a lull for a minute, and then someone else comes,” she said. She hadn’t heard much about the dog flu outbreak, but speculated that others had heard about it as well. “Maybe that’s why the park is so empty.”
Kontoroff said she wasn’t sure if Leo had been vaccinated, but that she’d consider it now.
“He’s already got his shots, but I don’t know if the flu one was included — he’s from a shelter,” she said. “I guess I’ll have to take him.”