The recent canine influenza outbreak in the Chicago has generated a lot of anxiety among dog owners around the country. Unfortunately, the understandable and appropriate stream of questions from dog owners about this disease has generated a great deal of misinformation in the media and on the internet, and sadly some of it has come from veterinarians. While there is much we do not know, there are some things which are certainly not true and not helpful to dog owners.
To begin with, the most reliable sources of information about this disease are reputable veterinary infectious disease experts. Cornell University’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center (AHDC) has been the gold-standard lab for testing samples from dogs involved in this outbreak, and this is a great source of information. The Centers of Disease Control (CDC) and American Veterinary Medical Association AVMA) are also reliable sources. In brief, the current outbreak is a new variety (H3N2) of the previously identified canine influenza virus (H3N8), which itself originated in horses. Neither has been shown to be transmissible to people or most other animals, though the H3N2 variant can infect cats. The vast majority of infected dogs will show mild to now symptoms. Affected dogs typically have a mild persistent cough for 10-30 days, though the rare case that develops serious illness can show high fever and pneumonia. There is no direct treatment for the disease, but supportive care and treatment of secondary infections is very important in severely affected dogs. There is a vaccine which can reduce the risk of disease from the H3N8 strain, but it is not clear if there is any cross-protection against the H3N2 strain.
Since dogs do not travel as widely and readily as humans, influenza outbreaks are much less prone to spreading in this species. Unfortunately, as in humans, during an outbreak every dog with any symptoms that even vaguely resemble influenza is often assumed by its owners to have the disease. This leads to a lot of claims about the disease being present in places where it is not, as well as claims about animals either dying from the illness or being cured of it when they likely have not had it at all. Only appropriate diagnostic testing, as done through the AHDC, can confirm the presence of canine influenza, so we cannot make decisions about managing outbreaks or individual patients by assuming the disease is present based on compatible symptoms. These same symptoms are caused by many other, far more common, illnesses. The most up-to-date summary of cases tested and confirmed by the AHDC can be found on their web site.
As an example of egregious and dangerous misinformation about canine influenza, we can turn to our old model of veterinary quackery, Dr. Will Falconer. This fellow regularly attacks science-based veterinary medicine and essentially recommends magic as a substitute. He has a fondness for homeopathy, despite the abundant evidence that it is useless pseudoscience, and he has a particular loathing for vaccines. Predictably, he recommends homeopathy as treatment and prevention for canine influenza, providing an excellent model of the ridiculous fake science of homeopathy, and he derides vaccination as a preventative measure with arguments that are clearly and demonstrably false.
To begin with, he has posted his process for determining which homeopathic products to use to treat canine influenza. This involves the usual nonsense of listing symptoms which are in no way unique to this disease and then turning to collections of substances organized by the symptoms they are supposed to cause in healthy individuals based on so-called provings. Extremely dilute versions of these substances are then given one at a time. If the pet gets better, the treatment gets the credit. If not, another remedy is chosen just as capriciously and on and on until the patient either recovers or dies or the owner realizes that they are being scammed.
Dr. Falconer used this process to select a classic homeopathic remedy, Nux vomica (the poison strychnine diluted into non-existence), as the “cure” for canine influenza. However, after a couple of clients tried a different product (phosphorus, also diluted into non-existence) and their dogs got better, he decided this was the first choice cure. The fact that none of these patients were ever actually tested to see if they had influenza doesn’t bother Dr. Falconer, which given his demonstrated belief in magic isn’t surprising. One can easily see how this sort of extended process of trying one fake remedy after another without obtaining a real diagnosis or making any effort to employ real medical treatment could be dangerous for a dog who actually has influenza, or any other serious illness. It is ethically inexcusable for a veterinarian to practice this way, and it astounds and depresses me that Dr. Falconer is permitted to do so.
Of course, practicing voodoo in place of medicine doesn’t work nearly as well if you don’t try to mislead and frighten people away from actual medicine, and Dr. Falconer has shown himself cheerfully willing to do that before. In the case of canine influenza, he asserts that vaccines are useless and potentially dangerous and only considered because of the malign influence of, you gussed it, Big Pharma:
The Influence of Big Pharma
it’s widely known there’s no cross immunity between flu virus strains.
But, [a reporter sufficiently naïve to interview Dr. Falconer] went with, “experts don’t know” if the current vaccine will help.
Here we with go with the “uncertainty” again, that keeps the doors open for lots of dogs to be unnecessarily vaccinated for this flu. With all the inherent risks vaccination carries.
The current vaccine will not prevent it. Any vet who’s uncertain about that is shining you on.
Despite what is “widely known” in homeopathy fantasyland, cross protection between vaccines for different influenza strains is common, and the CDC, AVMA, and AHDC have no reason to “shine us on” when they admit that the protective value of the H3N8 vaccine against the H3N2 strain is unknown.
There is no need to panic about canine influenza. The current outbreak is not spreading like wildfire across the country, most dogs who have coughing and other respiratory symptoms do not have influenza, most dogs exposed to influenza do not get seriously ill, and it is probably not worthwhile vaccinating your dog if you live outside of the area where confirmed cases have been detected or if your dog does not have extensive contact with other dogs. There are plenty of reliable sources of information, but you cannot assume that just because someone is a veterinarian that they have the facts about this disease. Certainly, anyone claiming miraculous cures, effective prevention, or some sort of vast conspiracy or willful ignorance on the part of mainstream infectious disease and public health experts is not someone you should consider a reliable source of information about this or any other health risk to your dog.