Staying Ahead of the Dog Flu

Vaccination recommendations can change due to circumstances

Published: May 13, 2019
Just after grooming, Spike's spike is missing in action. Photo courtesy of Dr. Nathan Mueller

Not infrequently, I am guilty of working with outdated knowledge. I’m pretty sure it happens to everyone. When the last time I was wrong? About two minutes ago. Okay, I’m wrong about that timeframe, but sometimes it feels that way. So, you read or hear something that’s the opposite of what you have always known. In response, your internal voice says, “Wrong! I learned X, not Z, while watching that thing on the local news channel, or Animal Planet or something. If it’s on TV or online, then it must be true, right?”

Nope! It’s easy to fall back on what you know when learning something new. Media alert: You can’t trust everything you hear on the interwebs, radio or TV.

A discussion with a colleague about dog flu vaccine sparked my curiosity, causing me to dig deeper. Here in Oklahoma the dog flu doesn’t seem to have affected many dogs. “So why should we worry about dog flu in Oklahoma?” you ask. Well, just because it isn’t yet “sweepin’ down the plain” doesn’t change the fact that it still could become a much larger concern and that risk will probably never go away. From a more extreme perspective, you could ask when and where in Oklahoma (or for that matter, Nebraska, Wyoming or Timbuktu) will it become an issue? In the same breath, a more logical approach would be to focus on what can be done to prevent further outbreaks and spread of this infection. Contemplating those questions brings even more, such as: Is the canine influenza vaccine right for my dog?

The vaccinations recommended for pets, like any other medical recommendation, may be slightly different from pet to pet, and the vaccinations needed over your pet’s lifetime may change during aging. Why would they change, you ask? It’s because the variety of contagious diseases that pose a threat to your pet’s health vary due to factors such as your geographic location and your pet’s lifestyle.

Why do we vaccinate? Veterinarians recommend vaccines to protect a pet from the devastating effects of infectious disease. While some of these infections are short-lived, others may cause long-term or chronic illness and even death. While vaccinating is undoubtedly important to protect your pet, it’s not the only reason that we recommend vaccinations. They are also important because they help prevent the spread of infectious-causing organisms, thereby averting disease outbreaks. While there still may be infections that occur in unvaccinated pets, the effects of a potential outbreak are decreased and the likelihood for a severe outbreak is lessened.

Now, I totally get it. It’s been a hard week, this morning you forgot to put the coffee in the coffee maker before hitting the ‘start’ button (this actually happened to me), and now you’re thinking that in addition to the million-and-one vaccines your dog has already received that I’m going to tell you that you need another one. Not quite so fast! The truth is that some, but not all dogs, may need to be vaccinated for dog flu. I’ll be the first to admit that it can be quite confusing! In order to fully illustrate my points as to which dogs might be in need of an influenza vaccine and why keeping your pets up-to-date on vaccination is so vitally important, let me first get back to my original story.

Several years back, we adopted a Choodle puppy (Chihuahua-miniature poodle mix). When we first set eyes on him, it was immediately determined that his name would be Spike because of the giant cartoonish tuft of hair on top of his head. Combined with his strangely large ears, he looks like a creature out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Spike has a typical poodle coat so he requires a haircut once in a while. Occasionally the other two dogs join him in a jaunt to the groomer for a good bath and brush to prevent the buildup of hair in our home. It not only makes cleaning the house a little easier and quicker, but our dogs come home smelling, looking, and feeling great too. Just after their first visit it was clear that all of our dogs loved going to the groomer.

Surprisingly, when I called to make an appointment one day, the receptionist at the animal hospital where the groomer works informed me that all dogs coming for grooming would need to be vaccinated for canine influenza. I had been happily taking my dogs there for many months, but the idea of vaccinating my seemingly fully vaccinated dogs with yet another one had me confused as it had not been a requirement before. This prompted me to start thinking about it more critically and examining the real reason I had been told that my dogs needed it.

The requirement for an additional vaccine was due to a small outbreak of dog flu in an animal hospital not far away, resulting in the extreme measure of a temporary closure to prevent further infections. As a result, my colleague, the medical director of the veterinary hospital, decided that all dogs coming in for grooming would need to be vaccinated for influenza. All at once, the light bulb in my apparently stuck-in-ancient-times brain came on (veterinarians are slow sometimes too) as it became clear to me that the decision to require the vaccine was a wise one.

The discussion I had with my colleague reminded me that vaccines are most effective when used to prevent widespread infection, and given when the population is still unexposed to an infectious disease. Veterinarians recommend vaccination for good reason. The science behind the use of vaccines to prevent infection and disease is real.

At this point, I’m just going to jump right into the deep end of the pool: failure to reasonably and responsibly vaccinate all animals, for which we have an effective vaccine, may be part of an ever-growing misunderstanding in modern times that fails to take into account what actually happens when we do not vaccinate. Take human flu – the flu virus in just another sort-of large animal species – as an example of what happens when there isn’t a vaccine available yet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in the 1918 flu pandemic at least 50 million deaths occurred worldwide, and about 675,000 of those occurred in the United States. True, it was an extraordinarily virulent strain of the virus, but that still doesn’t negate the fact that we haven’t seen a pandemic that severe since we began vaccinating for flu. We’ve come a long way in the last 100 years, so let’s not start backtracking now.

Sadly, in some ways, we are.

What’s happening today? In the U.S. we are currently experiencing a serious upswing in measles – you may have heard something about that - with the greatest number of cases in the U.S. since 1994 and despite its elimination in the U.S. in 2000. Outbreaks have occurred in six states and, of note, are related to unvaccinated international travelers. Vaccination for measles was so successful that the virus actually took a bow and exited stage left in the U.S., but it’s back and it appears that we now need to focus on doing a better job of vaccinating for it.

Which specific dogs should be vaccinated for influenza? Your veterinarian may recommend the flu vaccine if your dog participates in any of the following activities: grooming; boarding; sporting events; doggy daycare; and frequenting public venues where your dog may come into contact with other dogs, such as dog parks, performance competitions, and dog shows (just in case there happens to be a little innocent nose-to-nosing or butt-sniffing). Discuss the usefulness of the flu vaccine with your veterinarian if your dog participates in any of these activities (by which I mean going to dog parks, not butt sniffing; if we did it for butt sniffing, every dog in the world would need to be vaccinated).

One more thing: Only entrust the important task of vaccinating to your veterinarian.  That means we don’t want your Uncle Wayne or your neighbor (the one who recommended putting apple cider vinegar in your dog’s water dish to do X) to come over and give a vaccine that that was purchased online, shipped in from who knows where, and made in someone’s garage where it was stored for who knows how long at 102°F. [End of rant.]

The takeaway for everyone, veterinarian or non-veterinarian, is that we should not wait until the threat of an outbreak is imminent or after one has occurred before using vaccines. We can proactively stop the cycle of infection to prevent contagious pet illnesses by using effective vaccines in all practical scenarios. A vaccine is a tool, and while not perfect, they are designed to be safe and effective when they are administered correctly by your veterinarian. We know that vaccination saves lives and that is why it is important to keep your pet up-to-date on all recommended vaccines.

A final word of advice: Please do not bring your cat, rabbit, mini-pig, gerbil, goat, tortoise, parrot, sugar glider, llama, or child to your veterinarian for a dog flu vaccine. It is only for dogs, despite what your crazy Aunt Rita said last night when she also told you that global warming made her icemaker stop working.

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