This post was written by Kim, one of the Frontier Veterinary Hospital managers.
Prior to moving to Oregon and starting work at Frontier in the fall of 2016, I lived in Chicago and managed a small animal vet clinic there for many years. I had the rather unlucky situation of being there at essentially “Ground Zero” for the major outbreak of Canine Influenza Virus (CIV) in the spring of 2015. I would imagine many of you are, or were, unfamiliar with CIV, and for good reason – it simply hasn’t been a concern on our radar as veterinary professionals OR dog owners on the West Coast. However, now that we have seen hot spots of it cropping up in California, I wanted to share some of my first-hand experience so that Frontier and our clients can be as best prepared as possible if and when the virus heads our way.
When we first started experiencing the onslaught of coughing, lethargic, sick dogs in Chicago we had no idea what the root cause was. It presented like a really bad respiratory infection, and it wasn’t until weeks after the first dogs started acting sick that labs were able to identify it as H3N2 – a new (previously unseen in the United States) strain of Canine Influenza Virus.
It’s important for everyone to know that this isn’t at all like Kennel Cough, the one respiratory infection that dog owners are used to hearing about. It’s much, much more severe. During the height of the outbreak, we were treating 40-50 sick dogs a day. Many of those required isolated hospitalization that we couldn’t handle even as a 6 doctor clinic, so we frequently had to send patients to local emergency facilities.
We were under constant isolation protocol: imagine disposal gowns, gloves, shoe covers, the works. Almost every pet required radiographs (x-rays) to rule out pneumonia or other severe infections. Our staff was all-hands-on-deck helping care for our patients, including me, so there were times that even as a manager I was barely taking off my lead x-ray apron!
A large majority of boarding and grooming facilities in the city and suburbs shut down completely for weeks so that they could properly clean and sanitize their grounds. As a clinic, we had to advise all of our dog-owning clients not to take their pets to daycares or local dog parks and beaches due to the highly contagious nature of the disease. For a dog-friendly city like Chicago (and Portland is even more so), you can imagine what that was like for everyone! As a dog owner myself, when I was walking Allie and I saw another dog walking toward us I would cross the street to the other sidewalk. I just didn’t want to take any chances due to what I was seeing each and every day at work. To say that it affected everyone’s day to day lives would be an understatement.
Most dogs that came in would have a horrible, wet sounding cough. It would be so bad in a lot of cases that the poor dogs would be gagging from coughing. I’m sure many of you have had a bad case of the flu where you were kept up all night coughing and having trouble breathing- this was very similar to how these dogs would present. They would be lethargic, not eating, sometimes have discharge from their eyes and/or nose, and just really down and out overall. Many would develop pneumonia and need to be hospitalized on IV fluids and antibiotics for days. Unfortunately, some dogs did die from CIV, but we were fortunate enough not to lose any of our patients.
When the H3N2 vaccine first came out amidst all of this, we couldn’t keep enough of it in stock. It was so important for every pet to receive the vaccine due to the risk of exposure being so high – even for those dogs that didn’t regularly socialize with other dogs. That may sound counterintuitive, but the nature of CIV is highly contagious and capable of living on surfaces for lengthy periods of time. This meant that even those dogs that lived in high rise condos or apartment buildings were still at risk. Of course, like any other vaccine, it is not 100% effective. However, much like the human flu vaccine, we found that it would greatly reduce the severity of symptoms if the dog did still contract CIV.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t just a single outbreak, as so many people regularly travel with their pets and therefore expose other dogs to the virus. With CIV, a dog can exhibit no symptoms whatsoever but still spread the disease. And while we were vaccinating as many of our patients as possible, because it was a new disease, not every dog in Chicago was vaccinated. This caused us to have constant flare-ups of infected dogs over several months of that entire year.
Now that we know CIV has reached the West Coast (particularly the Bay Area of California), it’s more important than ever to make sure that everyone is educated about Canine Influenza Virus. The first step is to talk to your veterinarian about if your dog should receive the vaccine. One of the most important things we do as a vet clinic is to provide quality preventive medicine- which in this case means vaccinating potentially at-risk pets ahead of the virus arriving in Oregon. This will help ensure that our beloved dog community is as prepared as possible. The last thing I want to see is a repeat of the explosion of sick pets that we saw in Chicago. Since the virus strain was brand new at that time, we had no current defense, but fortunately, we Portlanders are in a much better position to prevent an outbreak since we already have an effective vaccine. The vaccine requires an initial dose, a booster 2-4 weeks later, after which full immunity is reached 7-10 days later. Because of this, the key to preventing an outbreak is to vaccinate your dog before the virus reaches our area.
Remember that your vet is the best possible source of information on this and any other pet health-related topic. I know that even as a veterinary professional with first-hand experience, as a dog owner my veterinarian’s advice and information has been invaluable!