By EDIE LAU
October 25, 2005
A pair of researchers at the University of California, Davis, put out a call Friday for help from the state's veterinarians in developing a diagnostic test for the bug, the first influenza strain known to afflict dogs.
Up to now, vets who have found suspected cases of canine influenza have been sending samples to the scientists who identified the virus, at the University of Florida and Cornell University in New York.
"I'm hearing that diagnostics are taking quite awhile, because they're backed up," said Laurel Gershwin, an immunologist in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. "We decided, you know what, we just need to try to get our own."
Tests performed at Cornell show the virus has infected dogs in 13 states and Washington, D.C. While most of the animals have been in Eastern states, cases have occurred in California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona, as well.
Like people, dogs with the flu develop runny noses, sneezes, coughs and fever. And, as with the human flu, the illness can be mild, moderate, severe and even lethal. The mortality rate so far has been low, about 5 percent to 8 percent.
Dog flu first broke out in racing greyhounds in Florida in January 2004. But because no flu strain was known to infect dogs, veterinarians did not know what was sickening and, in some cases, killing the greyhounds.
It wasn't until late September of this year that a team of researchers from Florida, Cornell and elsewhere published research showing dogs are susceptible to a form of influenza almost identical to that of a horse flu strain known as H3N8.
Ruben Donis, a flu geneticist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who collaborated on the research, said this is the first known instance in 100 years of research that a flu strain has became established in a completely new species.
The timing is notable. The species jump happened just as the world is jittery over an avian flu strain known as H5N1 that originated in Asia and recently spread to Europe. Although that flu largely affects birds, 118 people have been sickened since December 2003, according to a World Health Organization count. Of those, 61 died.
Donis said the emergence of canine influenza and a lethal strain of avian influenza in people at the same time likely is a coincidence. "I think it's just the probability game," he said.
Most of the people who have contracted bird flu have been in close contact with sick chickens and other poultry. As a bug that passes to people only from birds, it would not fan an epidemic because for the most part, people can avoid contact with sick birds.
What health officials fear is that the virus may evolve to spread from person to person, potentially causing a global epidemic, because it would be a new strain in humans to which they have not developed immunity.
The emergence of canine influenza likewise has raised fears about the potential of a new flu bug for people coming from dogs.
While folks in Western countries tend not to live in close proximity to chickens and other domestic fowl, Westerners certainly live closely with their dogs. As Donis offered: "A friend of mine has a St. Bernard, and I swear, this guy slobbers half a gallon a day all over the place."
To date, however, there is no evidence that people can catch the dog flu.
Eric Weigand, president of the California Veterinary Medical Association, said that flu or no flu, it's not a good idea to kiss your dog.
"I always worry about people who allow their dogs to kiss them on the face, for a lot of reasons," said Weigand, a veterinarian in Claremont. "It's not just influenza. There's potential for parasites to be transmitted and so on."
"It's fine to love your dogs and hug them, but make sure they're not licking your eyes and your nose and your mouth. And wash your hands," he said.
As for protecting pets, Weigand and other veterinarians advised keeping dogs home if they seem ill, and keeping them away from dogs that appear ill.
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