The world is full of terrifying emerging diseases, food shortages, climate change leading to flooding and drought, the re-appearance of once-controlled diseases due to war and poverty, the collapse of the world economy and turmoil in the US health care system... it goes on and on, although I will, mercifully, cut it short there and ask one simple question.
Where exactly do so many people get so much energy to freak out over things that really matter very little in the normal course of their lives?
I could be talking about any number of "sky is falling" veterinary health warnings, some of which originate from the drug companies who seek to scare you into buying their products (yes, I mean you, Ft. Dodge), and some from the apparently endless Internet rumor mill ("new" parvo comes to mind). But today I'm talking about canine influenza, which has all my email lists and even the Washington Post talking in dire terms about illness, contagion and death.
Which I found kind of hard to understand, since as far as I knew, canine influenza was just one of many bacteria and viruses that cause the dog version of the human cold, what we mostly call "kennel cough." After it was identified in Florida, it turned out it was pretty much all over the country, and to date has been discovered in 30 states and the District of Columbia. In other words, it's out there, folks, and has been for quite some time. We just didn't know to look for it.
At least, that's what I thought. So why all the press and scary warnings?
As I did with "the new parvo," I checked the facts with Melissa Kennedy, DVM, PhD., DACVM, a clinicial virologist at the University of Tennessee Veterinary Teaching College and infectious disease and immunology consultant for the Veterinary Information Network.
Now, I can understand Dr. Kennedy thinking canine influenza is hot news. She's a virologist, and this is the first time an influenza virus has mutated to be able to cause disease in dogs. I'm guessing that's the reason epidemiologists and immunologists would be all over it, too, along with the vaccine manufacturers. But is this something average dog owners need to worry about? Have I been wrong about this one?
"Canine influenza virus (CIV) is a contagious viral disease spread most commonly among dogs with close contact or shared airspace, much like our influenza," she said. "Pet dogs at home are at very low risk. Dogs that board or frequently comingle with other dogs could be at risk."
What kind of risk are we talking about? "CIV is generally a mild disease, with typical symptoms of cough, some lethargy, fever, and perhaps nasal discharge," Dr. Kennedy told me. "As with the human influenza, there is a risk for secondary bacterial infections which can be serious. This risk is highest among puppies and elderly dogs, where immunity may not be as good as in healthy adult animals."
Bottom line: "For most pet dogs, and probably most cases, it causes mild disease."
Dr. Kennedy confirmed that canine influenza is probably one of many causes of "kennel cough," although she used its more correct medical name, canine respiratory disease complex. "There are several viral and bacterial agents that may play a role in this disease complex, of which canine influenza virus is one," she said.
I asked her about the new vaccine, just approved in June. It's a killed virus vaccine and does not actually prevent infection with CIV. Nor does it protect your dog from becoming ill, although it might make his symptoms less severe (or not). And it also doesn't mean your dog, sick or not, can't infect other dogs, even after he's been vaccinated.
She said she does not consider the new canine influenza vaccine a "core" vaccine that should be given to every dog, but rather a tool that might be helpful in shelters, kennels, or other environments where dogs are housed in close quarters and high numbers. She also agreed that vaccinated dogs, who can still be infected, could carry the disease home to other dogs.
Of course, influenza viruses are tricky things, and can mutate rapidly and unpredictably, so anything we say about CIV today could be wrong tomorrow. This virus could become nastier, or less nasty, over time; we really don't know. But for the moment, it's basically no bigger danger to our dogs than kennel cough is, which is to say, in most cases it will cause mild symptoms (or none), but in some dogs, particularly the very young, very old, and immune-compromised, it can cause more severe illness and even death.
It can also be a real threat in crowded environments such as shelters and anywhere dogs are kept together in a confined space, and the new vaccine may have a role to play in those kinds of settings. But the average couch-sitting, yard-playing, park-walking pet probably isn't going to benefit from this vaccine, and probably isn't at much risk of severe illness from the virus, either -- any more than you or I are from the common cold.
Oh, and the sky isn't falling. I just thought I'd mention that, too.