Pet Talk: Animal influenza

August 26, 2009

From College of Veterinary Medicine, Texas A&M University

The recent emergence and spread of the swine flu virus, also known as H1N1, has affected people throughout the world. From school closings to canceled vacations, the swine flu has caused a lot of concern. These concerns have led many to take extended precautions for themselves, their spouses and their children. But what, if any, precautions should be taken for the furry members of our families? The H1N1 strain may not affect our animals in the way that it does humans, but similar type A flu viruses can affect our pets.

In 2005, the first cases of the canine influenza virus were reported in Florida and have since spread throughout the country. The virus is a mutant of the H3N8 equine influenza virus, and is a contagious respiratory disease that may mirror signs of kennel cough, including sneezing, coughing and fever.

“Nearly 100 percent of dogs that come in contact with the virus become infected, regardless of age or vaccination history because the virus is new to them,” says Dr. Deb Zoran, an associate professor and chief of Small Animal Internal Medicine at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM). “Of those infected, an estimated 20 percent of dogs will show no signs of the disease.

“Of the 80 percent of dogs that exhibit clinical signs, the majority will have only mild signs of respiratory illness,” explains Zoran. “In most dogs, the clinical signs include a low-grade fever, nasal discharge and a persistent cough that could last up to three weeks. In dogs that develop severe signs of illness, the clinical signs include a high fever, increased respiratory rates with difficulty breathing, and other indications of viral pneumonia.”

The testing results for the virus cannot be obtained quickly, as the diagnosis of canine influenza is made by sending samples for testing to a laboratory at Cornell University for PCR of the virus. As a result, your veterinarian may suggest your dog be quarantined away from other dogs to prevent the possible spread of this respiratory virus to other canines.

Fortunately, most cases can be treated with symptomatic or supportive care, including fluid support, antiviral therapy, bronchodilators and, if needed, oxygen. If you believe your pet has contracted the virus, it is important to contact your veterinarian.

“As is the case in any viral infection, antibiotics are not helpful unless the infection is so severe that secondary bacterial pneumonia is suspected,” notes Zoran. “Fortunately, treatment—even in the most severely affected dogs—has been successful in about 95 percent of cases. The key is early diagnosis and treatment. So if your canine is showing signs of illness, such as a decreased appetite, lethargy, fever or a cough, it is important to contact your veterinarian for further evaluation. Your veterinarian is best qualified to make a diagnosis and to provide advice for caring for any dogs affected with the virus.”

There is no vaccine for this virus, and the disease continues to affect dogs throughout the country. The best method of protection is to keep your animal companion away from infected dogs.

Cat owners have fewer flu concerns, as felines appear not to be susceptible to the class Type A flu viruses, and do not develop classic flu symptoms. Cats have their own versions of respiratory viruses, but these viruses are not influenza viruses. However, the same cannot be said for birds, which can be just as susceptible to contracting influenza as our canine friends.

“Avian influenza is a contagious bird disease,” says Dr. Sharman Hoppes, an avian specialist at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. “It is usually only infectious to birds, but can occasionally infect pigs and people. The disease is most common in waterfowl, and is often an asymptomatic infection in ducks.”

Similar to the canine influenza virus, there are two levels of severity observed in the avian flu.

“There are two main forms of disease: a low virulence form and a high virulence form,” explains Hoppes. “The low pathogenic form may manifest as ruffled feathers and a drop in egg production. The high pathogenic form can cause respiratory and gastrointestinal signs, and sometimes lead to death.”

While uncommon, it is possible for avian influenza to spread to people. However, this usually occurs only if the individual is in very close contact with an infected bird.

“If an individual is infected with avian influenza, he or she can actually become quite sick and the disease can often progress to pneumonia or death,” cautions Hoppes. “Avian influenza is much more serious when it crosses over to humans because most people do not have immunity to the disease. Fortunately, avian flu has not been transmitted from person to person like the swine flu. However, one of the concerns of avian influenza is that it will mutate and develop into a disease that could transmit from person to person.”

At this time, it is highly unlikely your pet bird will contract avian influenza, but in the event that your feathered friend becomes sick, care is available.

“While unlikely that your pet parrot will develop avian influenza, it could be possible if you have pet poultry or waterfowl, as they are more likely to contract the disease,” says Hoppes. “If your pet bird does get sick, it is more likely to be the low pathogenic form and supportive care is available. The best way to prevent your bird from contracting avian influenza is to minimize their contact with waterfowl and poultry.”

Both the canine influenza virus and the avian influenza disease can cause detrimental health problems in your pet, but knowing the warning signs and taking proper precautions could save both you and your companion the worries of influenza.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the Web at http://tamunews.tamu.edu. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

from the Aug. 26-Sept. 1, 2009 issue

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