A strain of “highly contagious” canine influenza has emerged in Montgomery County, although the virus isn’t believed to be capable of spreading to humans.
The virus has been identified in six dogs in the county since mid-August, two of which have died, according to an Aug. 22 bulletin released from the state Department of Agriculture to veterinarians and health and government officials.
The disease comes in two varieties — a mild form with a cough and a more severe form that can cause potentially deadly respiratory disease, according to the bulletin, which calls it “highly contagious.”
The cough in the more mild variety can last from 10 to 21 days despite treatment by antibiotics, while the more severe form has responded best to treatment by a combination of antibiotics and intravenous fluid therapy to keep the dog hydrated.
One of the problems of recognizing canine influenza is that the early symptoms of coughing and sneezing can be caused by any of about a dozen illnesses, said Mike Berbert, a veterinarian at Gaithersburg Animal Hospital.
But it also can develop into pneumonia, characterized by symptoms such as fever, weakness, lethargy and loss of appetite, he said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, some dogs can have virtually no symptoms from canine influenza while others’ reactions can be severe, but the number of dogs that die generally is very small.
The state bulletin said previous outbreaks have seen a fatality rate of 1 to 5 percent of dogs who get the disease.
“It is too early in the reporting of this disease event to provide good epidemiological data,” according to the bulletin. “As more information on this current virus strain is gathered and evaluated, additional information will be provided.”
The virus can be spread by sneezing or coughing of other dogs, contact with objects that have been contaminated or by people who deal with both sick and healthy dogs.
There have been no reported cases of the disease spreading from dogs to humans, according to the CDC.
While they wouldn’t want anyone whose dog sneezes to bring their dog to the vet, owners should be alert, especially if their dog has been around areas with other dogs such as dog parks, grooming parlors or kennels, Berbert said.
Montgomery County will keep the five dog parks it maintains open, but has posted signs in the park letting dog owners know the symptoms of the dog flu, said Melissa Chotiner, a spokeswoman for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
Dog owners also may want to temporarily avoid places where large numbers of dogs gather, b.j. Altschul, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Humane Society, said in an email Tuesday.
They should make sure that any boarding facility is extremely clean and has a way to isolate any dog that begins showing symptoms, she said.
Berbert said he wasn’t aware of any previous cases in Montgomery County, although because the symptoms look so much like those of other illnesses, the virus may have been seen without anyone knowing it.
The flu’s uniqueness means many dogs haven’t built up an immunity to it, he said.
“This is a pretty new organism,” he said.