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Dog's cough-cough could be the flu

Most dogs recover, but a recent strain of canine flu has no vaccine, and can be deadly.

By VANESSA de la TORRE and GRAHAM BRINK
Published October 15, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Flu is a hot topic these days. Bird flu, Spanish flu.

And now ... dog flu.

Researchers recently discovered that a strain of the flu has jumped from horses to dogs, who have not built up any immunity against it. And there is no vaccine.

"One hundred percent of dogs will be susceptible," said Edward Dubovi, director of the animal virology lab at Cornell University. "I would expect to see this infection moving through groups of dogs until a large percentage gets infected."

Fortunately, only a small number of infected dogs - about 5 percent, so far - appear to die as a result.

"In the grand scheme of things, it seems low," Cynda Crawford, a veterinary immunologist at the University of Florida, said Friday. "But if it's your dog, you don't care. You don't take solace in that."

Gina Burton stopped taking her 9-month-old King Charles spaniel, Cody, to the dog park after her mother called from Jacksonville to warn her about the virus.

"I don't really know much about it. Just that I don't want it," Burton, 46, said Friday as she bought a bag of puppy food at the Animal House Pet Center in St. Petersburg.

Researchers aren't sure where or when the flu strain jumped from horses to dogs. They first identified it at a greyhound track in Florida. Now, it is spreading through the country's pet population, with cases reported on both coasts and in Florida.

In New York, for example, the flu forced a kennel to close for more than two weeks.

It's unclear exactly how many dogs around the country have the flu and how many have died. Many likely were misdiagnosed, since this flu strain is relatively new, experts said.

Florida veterinarians sent Crawford samples from 250 sick dogs of which about 40 percent tested positive for the flu, she said. Most documented cases are concentrated in south and northeast Florida, she said. No cases have turned up in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. A few were reported in Pasco County.

Last month, Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles H. Bronson issued an alert about canine flu. He emphasized that the number of cases could increase, especially as Hurricane Katrina evacuees accompanied by pets temporarily relocate to Florida.

All dogs regardless of breed or age are susceptible to infection. Puppies, older dogs and dogs with compromised immune systems are more likely to die from the disease.

Dog flu is a highly contagious respiratory infection that can easily be mistaken for kennel cough.

The flu, however, cannot be treated with antibiotics and has a much higher fatality rate. Eventually the dog population should build up an immunity to this flu, researchers said.

This particular strain has not been seen in humans.

Most infected dogs will fully recover in a few weeks, suffering from cough and low grade fevers. Others will develop a bacterial infection in the nose, which is treatable with antibiotics, with the most serious complication being pneumonia.

Dogs are more likely to contract the flu in places where they gather with other dogs including kennels, shelters, parks and dog shows. Any dog diagnosed with the flu should be kept away from uninfected dogs, experts said.

"Dog owners should be aware that any situation that brings dogs together brings the potential to spread any communicable diseases," Crawford said.

"Don't just protect your dog, protect other people's dogs, too."

The Times contacted several animal hospitals and kennels in the Tampa Bay area. None reported any cases of the flu, though many of the vets and owners had just heard about the disease.

Karen Hughart, owner of Pasadena Pet Motel, said none of her canine guests have been infected. But she isn't taking any chances.

She has consulted her veterinarian for tips. She also lets customers know about her usual routine to help prevent airborne disease: She shuts down the air conditioning four times a day and opens windows to ventilate the building, with the help of a massive exhaust fan.

"Any unusual coughing or sneezing" calls for quarantine and a trip to the vet, said Hughart, who expects 30 dogs this weekend. "Being vigilant about it and keeping it very clean: That's how we're dealing with it."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

AT A GLANCE: DOG FLU

SYMPTOMS: Cough, low-grade fever and a runny nose. Most infected dogs recover without treatment, but should be kept from other dogs.

TREATMENT: A veterinarian can tell whether pneumonia has set in. A small percentage of dogs will develop a severe, potentially fatal case; vets may offer cough suppressants, antibiotics or antiviral drugs. About 5 percent of victims die, with older dogs and puppies at risk.

PREVENTION: Researchers are working on a vaccine, but none exists.

Sources: Associated Press, www.petplace.com

[Last modified October 15, 2005, 01:16:10]


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