When Elizabeth Estes's dog, Ollie, started coughing last year, she didn't think he was seriously ill at first. But then the 3-year-old Jack Russell-chihuahua mix got much worse.
"All of a sudden, he couldn't breathe and he was coughing. It was so brutal," says Estes, who lives in Chicago. "The dog couldn't breathe. I mean, could not breathe — just kept coughing and coughing and coughing and gasping for air."
Ollie, it turned out, had caught a strain of dog flu that's relatively new to the U.S — canine influenza H3N2. The virus arrived from Korea last spring and has since caused flu outbreaks among dogs in 26 states throughout the nation.
No cases of human infections with the virus have ever been recorded, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And H3N2 causes no symptoms or only mild illness in most dogs. But it is triggering some severe cases of canine pneumonia.
The night Ollie got so sick, Estes spent the night on the floor of her steam shower with the dog, and rushed him to a veterinarian as soon as she could the next morning.
"They said, 'When you get to the front of the building, call us because you can't bring the dog in through the lobby. You have to come in through the back door. It's that contagious,' " she says. "So I realized at that point: 'Wait a minute. This is something a little bit more serious than I thought it was.' "
The vet rushed the dog into intensive care. "I was petrified we were going to lose him, and pretty upset," Estes says.
After four days of intravenous fluids, help breathing and antibiotics to prevent complications, Ollie recovered. "He's perfectly fine now. But it was a scary and expensive endeavor — but mostly scary," she says.
Two different strains of dog flu are known to be circulating in the United States; canine influenza H3N2 is believed to have first arrived about a year ago, where it triggered an outbreak of illness among pets in Chicago. The virus apparently was brought into the country through O'Hare International Airport by an infected dog from South Korea.
"Dogs, like people, move all around the world." says Joseph Kinnarney, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
H3N2 has since spread to probably thousands of dogs in a number of areas throughout the U.S, Kinnarney says. Most have no symptoms. There have been reports of cats also getting sick from the infection in Korea, but so far that hasn't been reported in the United States.
The virus seems to be spreading much more easily than H3N8, a canine flu strain that has been in the U.S. longer. One reason is that dogs infected with H3N2 remain contagious for about three weeks, even if they have no symptoms; that's about a week longer than usual. Also, Kinnarney says, because the strain is new to the continent, U.S. dogs lack immunity to it.
Mild symptoms of the illness include a cough, loss of appetite and fatigue — these dogs recover on their own. Symptoms of severe illness — more likely in very old or very young dogs, or in dogs with other health problems — include high fevers, breathing problems and complications such as pneumonia.
Dogs that spend time around other dogs are the most likely to catch it, Kinnarney says, so pets that spend most of their time at home and rarely interact with other dogs are at low risk. He recommends that dogs that frequently come in contact with other dogs get immunized — two vaccines against H3N2 became available late last fall.
"If your dog goes to doggy day care, if your dog goes to a dog park, if your dog is traveling with you, you should get the vaccine," he says. "It's just not worth the risk."
The American Veterinary Medical Association gets funding for its educational meetings from companies that make the vaccines, but no specific products are promoted at those meetings, an association spokesperson says.
Other virologists and veterinarians say many dogs probably don't need the vaccine, especially animals that live where the virus is not circulating widely. You can check with your vet to see if there have been outbreaks in your area.
"You shouldn't be any more worried [about this strain of dog flu] than any other upper respiratory infection," says Ashley Gallagher, a veterinarian at the Friendship Heights Animal Hospital in Washington, D.C. "It's essentially just another kennel-cough disease."
Though there's no evidence so far that people can catch the virus from the dogs, there's always a chance the virus could mutate and become even more of a threat to dogs, says Edward Dubovi, a veterinary virologist at Cornell University who is tracking the virus. Like any flu virus, "it keeps changing," Dubovi says.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We haven't heard much about the flu so far this winter. It's still early in the season and for the moment nothing unusual seems to be happening. At least, not for humans. There is a new flu virus raising concerns for dogs, and NPR health correspondent Rob Stein reports that it's spreading fast around the United States.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: When Elizabeth Estes's dog, Ollie, started coughing, she didn't think it was any big deal at first. But then Ollie got worse, way worse.
ELIZABETH ESTES: All of a sudden, he couldn't breathe and he was coughing. It was so brutal. The dog couldn't breathe. I mean, could not breathe - just kept coughing, and coughing, and coughing and gasping for air.
STEIN: Estes ended up spending the whole night on the floor of her steam shower with Ollie. He's a little Jack Russell-Chihuahua mix who's about 3. The next morning, she rushed him to the vet as soon as she could.
ESTES: And they said, when you get to the front of the building call us because you can't bring the dog in through the lobby, you have to come in through the back door. It's that contagious. So I realized at that point - wait a minute, this is something a little bit more serious than I thought it was.
STEIN: Turns out Ollie had caught a new strain of dog flu that's spreading in the United States. The vet rushed Ollie into intensive care.
ESTES: I was petrified we were going to lose him and pretty upset.
STEIN: After four days of intravenous fluids, help breathing and antibiotics to prevent complications, Ollie recovered.
ESTES: He's perfectly fine now, but it was a scary and expensive endeavor - but mostly scary.
STEIN: Ollie lives in Chicago, where the outbreak started about a year ago.
JOE KINNARNEY: Dogs, like people, move all around the world.
STEIN: Joe Kinnarney is president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
KINNARNEY: And so the thought is that a dog came in from South Korea to Chicago, and that's where it started.
STEIN: The virus has now spread to more than two dozen states. No one knows exactly how many dogs have gotten it so far, but it's probably thousands. And it looks like it spreads much easier than the old dog flu for a couple of reasons. First of all, infected dogs can spread it for weeks even if they have no symptoms. And...
KINNARNEY: Because there's no immunity at all in this country to it, dogs are getting it faster.
STEIN: Now, most dogs that catch the new flu don't get sick at all. Others only cough a bit, lose their appetites for a while and maybe get really tired. But some dogs are getting very sick - high fever, can't breathe. Some are even dying from complications like pneumonia.
KINNARNEY: The fatality rate is probably less than 10 percent, and it depends upon the condition of the dogs when they catch it, if they get really bad pneumonia, if they get secondary infection, bacterial infection and how fast they treat it.
STEIN: Dogs that spend time around other dogs are the most likely to catch it so Kinnarney is recommending a lot of dogs get a new vaccine that just became available.
KINNARNEY: If your dog goes to doggie day care, if your dog goes to the dog park, if your dog is traveling with you, you should get the vaccine. It's just not worth the risk. If your dog doesn't leave your house, you basically stay home all the time, you're at a lower risk. If your dog's not healthy, if they have other medical problems, good idea to get the vaccine.
STEIN: But other experts told me it's not that clear cut, especially if you live in a place that hasn't seen a lot of the new flu. So now it's time for some disclosure. My family has a dog - a big Bernese mountain dog named Peaches...
STEIN: ...And all this got me wondering if we should get Peaches vaccinated so I called up our vet to ask.
Hi, Dr. Gallagher?
GALLAGHER: Yes, hello.
STEIN: Hi, how are you?
GALLAGHER: I'm well, thanks. How's Peaches?
STEIN: Peaches is doing great. She's doing really well. Thanks for asking.
GALLAGHER: Oh, good.
STEIN: I started telling her about my story.
What about Peaches? Should - do I need to be worried about her?
GALLAGHER: (Laughter). Well, the short answer is, you shouldn't be any more worried than any other upper respiratory infection. It's essentially just another kennel cough disease.
STEIN: So Dr. Gallagher doesn't think we need to get Peaches vaccinated even though we take her to dog parks all the time.
GALLAGHER: It's a very contagious virus, but if she's in the dog park and she's outside, she's less likely to contract it than if she's in a doggie day care in an inside environment.
STEIN: So we probably won't get Peaches vaccinated. But after I hung up, I realized I had lots of other questions. Could we catch the virus from Peaches? Could it suddenly get worse for dogs? For that, I called Edward Dubovi. He's been tracking this new dog flu at Cornell. He says there's no evidence people can catch the flu from their dogs but there's always a chance it could mutate and get even worse for dogs.
EDWARD DUBOVI: It keeps changing. It keeps morphing. And you have to worry about mutations that may occur. It could become a more hyper-virulent virus and actually start killing a lot of dogs.
STEIN: So scientists are keeping a close eye on this new dog flu virus, and we're keeping a close eye on Peaches. Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.