Midwest dog flu has some vets requiring vaccinations

April 27, 2015

ST. LOUIS — Some St. Louis area kennel owners will start requiring dogs to get a flu vaccine after a recent outbreak in Chicago has sickened hundreds of canines.

Over the last few weeks the flu has infected at least 1,000 dogs in the Midwest, and a small number of infected dogs in the Chicago area have succumbed to the virus. That has spread anxiety among dog owners, prompting some to isolate their pets from other dogs.

There have been no reported cases in Missouri, but that hasn’t stopped some kennel owners from seeking preventive measures.

"We are concerned about it and we are taking it very seriously," said Alan Jones, owner of Kennelwood Pet Resorts.

Starting in the next few weeks, dogs will need a flu vaccine to visit any of Kennelwood’s eight area locations for grooming, boarding or other activities. A similar policy will also soon take effect at Petropolis in Chesterfield, Mo., and other kennels are likely to follow suit.

"This is a disease that will be very manageable and very preventable," said Paul Schifano, Petropolis’ owner and a veterinarian. "The whole approach is to avoid something that has happened in Chicago."

Area veterinary experts stress that no local cases have been reported. They also say that although some cases of the virus can be severe, dogs with overall good health will be fine even if they are infected.

Canine flu is very similar to the human virus. It causes persistent cough, runny nose and fever. There’s similarly a vaccine like the one people receive every fall. The dog flu vaccine typically cost about $25 and requires a booster two to three weeks after the initial injection.

Also like human flu, there’s no guarantee the vaccine will keep dogs from getting sick. That’s of particular concern with the recent Chicago outbreak.

Tests have identified the H3N2 flu strain in sick dogs throughout the Chicago area. But the vaccine is designed to protect dogs from only the older H3N8 strain, which has also been found in some recent cases.

"We don’t know if the vaccine we are using is going to be protective or if it’s not going to work at all," said David Roberts, a veterinarian at Manchester West Veterinary Hospital.

Leah Cohn, professor of veterinary science at the University of Missouri, said the H3N2 strain was first identified in 2006 after infecting dogs in Asia. She said there had been no reports of the virus transmitting to humans, though cats could be susceptible.

She said there was no research on whether the current vaccine would shield dogs from the H3N2 strain. Instead, Cohn said owners should focus on other preventive measures, such as making sure their dogs are up to date on their other vaccinations.

Some area veterinarians still see value in the vaccine. In an email blast to customers, Kirkwood Animal Hospital urged pet owners to quickly get their animals immunized.

"At this time there have not been any documented cases of canine influenza in the St. Louis area, but it is only a matter of time," it said.

Roberts said he was recommending it for "social" dogs that attend day camp or frequent dog parks. He also said dogs that travel with their owners should be vaccinated.

Tom Millis, a veterinarian at Millis Animal Hospital near Richmond Heights, Mo., said that he recommended the vaccine as a precaution but that he was not sure if it would work. He’s telling concerned owners to keep their dogs away from others who are coughing.

Millis said he had seen increased demand for the vaccine over the last few days. His hospital has had to order more to keep up.

Questions over the vaccine aside, experts say owners shouldn’t worry too much.

"There are people that get influenza and are fine," Cohn said. "The vast majority of dogs that get influenza are going to be OK as well."



McClatchy-Tribune Information Services