Alarmed not panicked: Canine influenza incites media hype; experts raise cautionary flag


Gainesville, Fla. — Media exposure and Internet rumors surrounding canine influenza have scientists and practitioners scrambling to clarify a sea of misinformation.

GAINESVILLE, FLA. — Media exposure and Internet rumors surrounding canine influenza have scientists and practitioners scrambling to clarify a sea of misinformation.

While experts say the outbreak is not as severe as press reports indicate, veterinary medicine is coping with a highly infectious canine virus establishing itself in dog populations.

At presstime, Cornell University's Animal Health Diagnostic Center confirmed canine influenza has appeared in nine states and Washington D.C., with most new cases stemming from boarding and kennel operations. Initially detected in racing Greyhounds in Florida, the virus was identified last year as equine flu that jumped species as reported in DVM Newsmagazine. Although the cross-species nature of the illness concerns some researchers, the virus, which causes severe respiratory illness that mimics kennel cough, has a low mortality rate, ranging from 5 percent to 8 percent of all cases.

Researchers at Cornell and the University of Florida (UF) want veterinarians to consider canine influenza in their differential diagnosis for kennel cough. Although there's currently no vaccine against the virus, experts aren't sounding the alarm. Canine influenza is successfully treated in most cases, they say.

Virus confirmed in multiple states

On the heels of a Science article on the discovery of canine influenza, author Dr. Cynda Crawford, a UF immunologist and disease investigator, warns veterinarians of misinformation surrounding the disease.

"People are relabeling this as bird flu. They say that it manifests in Greyhounds that eat horse meat — none of it is factual," she says. "Canine influenza can develop into pretty bad pneumonia, but I don't see how anyone would say it's an epidemic. This disease is not as deadly as people want to make it. Veterinarians should not panic."

Dispelling misinformation

Neither should owners, says Dr. Gail Golab, assistant director for professional and public affairs with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Communications Division. While state veterinarians are sending alerts to DVMs, AVMA reports pet owners and breeders are picking up the information, adding to it and circulating rumors on the Internet. In response to the hundreds of calls flooding AVMA offices, the association has sent out a news release to the profession's leadership.

"We're trying to separate fact from fiction," Golab says. "Certainly, this is an emerging disease, and we want to make sure we're getting the correct information out there."

Fast recognition key

Dr. Larry Nieman agrees with AVMA's educational efforts. The consultant for a national boarding chain says most veterinarians are "clueless" about canine influenza because it appears so much like general respiratory disease.

But canine influenza incubates faster and is more severe, he says. At Best Friends Pet Care Center in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., six coughing dogs were reported Aug. 29. Eleven days later, 88 dogs out of 150 developed atypical kennel cough. Roughly 15 of those infected developed pneumonia and one died, Nieman says.

"It's serious," he says. "This has the potential to be to be the new parvo."

Making a diagnosis

Crawford's rebuffs the analogy but doesn't discount veterinarians' concern, noting she receives up to 30 calls daily from DVMs across the country.

At present, the most reliable way to diagnose canine influenza virus infection is via serological testing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes the direct link between canine influenza virus and a clinical event is through the collection of acute and convalescent serum samples. While Cornell's Animal Health Diagnostic Center currently is the nation's hub for canine influenza testing, Crawford knows practitioners are frustrated; there are no quick answers.

"We're pushing for a more rapid diagnostic test that's useful for the practitioner who wants to know if the dog in the waiting room has it," she says. "Everybody wants a vaccine, and that's also being worked on."

Inoculation unnecessary

Some experts aren't persuaded that a canine influenza vaccine is necessary. Dr. Brad Fenwick, Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine vice president for research and professor of infectious disease and pathobiology, has treated hundreds of racing greyhounds with the disease. In the midst researching a vaccine against kennel cough caused by Bordetella bronchiseptica, Fenwick says canine influenza ranks low on his list.

"I'm afraid the media hype may prescribe yet another unwarranted vaccine in veterinary medicine," he says. "This is nothing like parvo in terms of the mortality rate. What happens is small animal practitioners don't treat a lot of bacterial pneumonia, and in dogs that's a medical emergency. Cases need to be treated promptly and with the right antibiotics."

Fenwick suggests a combination of antibiotics that attack gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria with excellent tissue penetration. Yet because canine influenza is "mild," Fenwick says half of all infected dogs will show no clinical signs.

"The average pet owner might not even recognize them," he says. "This is being over-hyped. I hope veterinarians realize that's what's going on here."

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