First cases of highly contagious dog flu confirmed in Florida

Dogs in Beijing wear masks after reports of a dog flu outbreak in 2009.
Dogs in Beijing wear masks after reports of a dog flu outbreak in 2009. AP

Florida has its first outbreak of a highly contagious strain of dog flu that appeared in the U.S. in 2015, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Since last week, vets at the University of Florida confirmed more than a dozen dogs have been infected after participating in dog shows in DeLand and Perry, Georgia between May 19 and May 27. Several of the dogs had to be hospitalized, but all are in stable condition, said the state’s chief vet, Dr. Michael Short. The flu is not typically fatal to dogs and cannot spread to humans. But it can spread to cats and, if left untreated, progress to pneumonia.

“It’s very contagious, so you have to be careful,” said Dr. Marta Lista of Trail Animal Hospital, who was alerted last week and so far has not seen any suspected cases. “Most dogs don’t have immunity and they don’t have vaccines.”

marta lista
Dr. Marta Lista, right, and assistant Andres Zapata, check out a puppy in 2012. Lista and other vets across the state were notified last week about the Florida’s first outbreak of dog flu. So far, her practice has seen no suspected cases. MARICE COHN BAND MIAMI HERALD FILE PHOTO

Symptoms include coughing, sneezing, runny noses, fever and lethargy. Dog owners should call their vets if they see symptoms and keep their pet away from other animals until they are treated. Sick pets need to be quarantined for at least four weeks.

Dogs have no natural immunity to the flu and the virus can live up to 24 hours, so dogs can be infected just by being exposed to an area, like a dog park or grooming parlor, visited by a sick dog, Lista said. Up to now, vets didn’t typically recommend vaccinating dogs because the virus had not been confirmed. However, Lista said her practice will now make vaccinations available to all dog and cat owners and recommend it to at-risk dogs that might be boarded or traveling.

The flu first surfaced in China, Korea and Thailand, where scientists believe the virus, originally affecting birds, jumped to dogs roaming live bird markets, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. In 2015, dogs in Chicago began falling ill, with numbers reaching about a thousand as the virus spread through the Midwest.

The AVMA said although the first cases were rumored to have started among dogs rescued from Asia, they have no evidence of that.

The virus is most commonly transmitted by coughing and sneezing dogs, which can spread their germs up to 20 feet. Outbreaks typically occur in places where pets are in close contact, like kennels and grooming parlors. Nearly all dogs exposed to the virus become infected, but only 80 percent show symptoms. The most common symptom is a cough that can last up to three weeks, despite treatment with antibiotics, according to the AVMA.

Most dogs can recover at home, but in some cases the influenza can worsen to pneumonia, Lista said.

Tuesday evening, UF officials were unable to say where the Florida cases occurred. Lista worried the numbers will likely rise.

“It’s not going to be easy to contain,” she said. “If they go to a dog park and sneeze and this spreads 10 feet, this thing can spread very quickly.”

This story was updated with additional information from the University of Florida

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