It’s not bad enough that the flu virus is tearing the human species a new one this winter. No, it has to go after the only good thing left in our snot-ridden lives: The Dogs. But while the idea of deadly dog flu spreading like wildfire through our nation’s kennels and shelters, as recent headlines suggest, might tug at our heartstrings, it probably isn’t as bad as some media outlets are making it out to be.
Earlier this month, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the South Bay area has seen around 50 possible cases in a two-week span, according to a local vet. More recently, the San Francisco SPCA confirmed that cases have been seen in the area. And two cases were detected in Canada last December—the first confirmed cases ever seen in the country. But there are no signs of a massive, deadly dog flu outbreak spreading across America.
A Fox News article this month did report that cases of dog flu have “spread to at least 46 states”—a startling fact offered with exactly zero sourcing.
Digging into it further, it appears to be referencing research compiled by Merck Animal Health, the creators of the only available dog flu vaccine on the market. But the article’s wording doesn’t make clear that Merck’s figures are accounting for all cases reported since 2007. In other words, while dog flu has been spotted in 46 states at some point over the past decade, that doesn’t mean it’s making dogs’ lives everywhere a living heck right this moment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, other outlets have credulously cited the Fox News “report” as evidence that dog flu is running wild across the country.
Overhype aside, vets do worry about dog flu. It’s an emerging, highly contagious disease. It’s caused by two different strains of the influenza virus (type A) that have only recently started to infect dogs, meaning the species as a whole is especially vulnerable to catching and spreading it. The first strain, discovered in 2004, mutated from a H3N8 flu virus that jumped across the species barrier from horses; the second strain, found in 2015, is closely related to a H3N2 strain originally found in birds that has legitimately become widespread in parts of Korea and China.
Edward Dubovi, a professor of veterinary medicine at Cornell University and one of the first researchers to track dog flu when it sprouted up, tells me that we probably are underestimating the number of cases. While only around 2,000 dogs in the U.S. have ever tested positive for dog flu (there are about 70 million dogs total in the country), according to Cornell’s data, the true number during a 2015 Chicago outbreak alone may have reached as high as 5,000.
“When one dog in a kennel of 20 is positive, no further testing is done,” he says.
But so far, dog flu outbreaks here have been sporadic, often caused by sick dogs imported from China and Korea. And while it does have a mortality rate of five to eight percent, about 80 percent of dogs who catch it suffer no more than a mild case of the sniffles. Neither strain appears to infect people (though H3N2 does seem to sicken cats). Now, all of that can definitely change, since flu viruses rapidly mutate. But for now, it’s more something to keep a watchful eye on than to panic about.
“Is the next plane from Korea or China bringing in a more deadly strain?” Dubovi asks rhetorically.
At least one Washington-based veterinarian, Mark Kummer, has denounced the recent headlines, taking to his office’s blog to quell the fears of his customers. In the post, he says he reached out to the Washington State Veterinary Medical association along with several testing labs to confirm that no confirmed cases have been seen in the state in more than two years. And he called dog flu a “low-level” problem that merits no drastic action, like widespread vaccination, right now.