Canine Flu: What Should You Be Afraid Of?

Canine flu
Post At A Glance

Over the past few months TV stations and newspapers have been full of warnings about the canine flu epidemic, especially in cities like Chicago, where they said 1,500 dogs got the flu in one outbreak.

Some articles called it “the deadly dog flu” … though they didn’t actually report how many dogs had actually died from it.

Even the New York Times ran a story about canine flu. They warned that 80 percent of dogs who get the virus become ill.  And they described how vet clinics were being overwhelmed by dogs “with high fevers, hacking coughs, copiously dripping noses, runny eyes, lethargy and loss of appetite.”

Ugh … that sounds nasty – and you don’t want your dog to get it.

Veterinary clinics are making it sound pretty scary too. They have posters explaining how sick dogs can get, and they put signs in their windows advertising “Canine Flu Shots HERE.”

The two companies who make dog flu vaccines are also providing lots of information about the epidemic.  They describe how easily the flu can be spread and they keep track of the latest state to have an outbreak.

So let’s dig a little deeper and see how bad this epidemic really is. And let’s also take a look at whether you should get your dog a flu shot.

First, a bit of history about the two viruses going around.

Where Did Canine Flu Come From?

The initial virus, H3N8, started in horses and transmuted to infect dogs at a greyhound track in Florida in January 2004. The virus spread rapidly to 40 states. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) says it’s endemic in parts of Colorado, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania. Cats at an Indiana shelter came down with the virus in March 2016, so it can spread from one species to another.

Then a new virus, H3N2 (originally a bird virus) started in Asia (Korea, China and Thailand). In March 2015 the virus caused a dog flu outbreak in Chicago. Rumors suggested it arrived with rescue dogs that came from Asia, but that’s never been confirmed. H3N2 has now been documented in 30 US states.

But is it really the epidemic they say it is?

See If Dog Flu’s In Your State

These maps come from Merck Animal Health, who makes a canine flu vaccine they want you to give your dog.  Merck has a whole website dedicated to providing scary information about dog flu.

These two maps show where each of the two viruses has spread across the US.

h3n2 documented in the US map
h3n8 documented in the US map

You might be alarmed if you see your state on the map, with H3N2 in 30 states and H3N8 in 42 states.

But if you delve a little deeper and look at the actual month-by-month “Outbreak Map” you’ll see the so-called outbreaks usually involve one to five cases in about one to three states each month! Here’s an example from August 2016.


This outbreak map isn’t scary at all. One to five cases in two states in a whole month? That’s hardly an epidemic or even an outbreak! You’d be lucky to find those sick dogs, let alone have your dog come into contact with them.

They Want You To Buy Their Vaccine

As well as the scary epidemic maps showing that the flu is nearly everywhere, Merck tries to mislead you by saying “up to eight percent of critically ill dogs may die from complications.” Eight percent sounds high … until you realize it’s eight percent of “critically ill dogs,” not of all dogs who get the flu. Most dogs who get the flu don’t become critically ill.  And if they do, 92 percent sounds like quite a good recovery rate from a critically ill state.

And check out the drama in this paragraph in one of their press releases:

Merck press release on dog flu

The whole website is designed to make you want to vaccinate your dog. They tell you how easily the disease spreads and how most dogs are susceptible (because they haven’t had a chance to develop immunity to these new viruses).

And then there’s the cute little puppet dog video starring “Mutt Damon” telling his doggy daycare pals “you don’t have to get the flu – your vet’s got a vaccine for canine flu!”

So is dog flu really that dangerous?

Dog Flu Deaths

During an outbreak in the Chicago area, there were supposedly five deaths out of more than 1,000 reported flu cases … but it turned out that two of the dogs had died after being vaccinated for canine flu, rather than from the flu itself.

The death rates from canine flu are very low. Official statistics say they’re less than 10% overall. But that’s probably an overstatement. Death rates in groups of greyhounds who developed hemorrhagic pneumonia during outbreaks have been higher, raising the average. So that means in the general dog population the mortality rate would be much lower.

Leading veterinarian Dr Jean Dodds estimates the real fatality rate is about 2% to 3%. She says the 10% number includes older data that’s not relevant to today’s viruses.

Dr Dodds also maintains that only dogs who are malnourished, have parasites or are health compromised in some way, will actually die from the flu.

Most otherwise healthy animals will get over the flu easily over a two or three week period.

Should You Vaccinate Against Canine Flu?

Even so, when you see all the alarming information from the media, veterinarians and vaccine manufacturers, you may be wondering whether you should vaccinate your dog against canine influenza. Vaccination is always a personal decision, so here’s some information to help with your choice.

Remember, there are two different canine flu viruses – the original H3N8 and the newer H3N2. Until recently, the only vaccinations available were for the H3N8 virus, so they weren’t effective against the H3N2 virus.

At the end of 2015 two companies, Merck and Zoetis, rushed H3N2 vaccines to market. But these new vaccines only have conditional licenses from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

What that means is that studies of the vaccines are still in process, so we don’t have any data about the efficacy and safety of these shots. Merck’s website states about its H3N2 vaccine: “This vaccine has a reasonable expectation of efficacy and safety.”

That’s what they have to tell the USDA to get the conditional licensing. But it’s not very reassuring, especially given what we know about vaccination risks and side effects and the very low effectiveness of flu vaccines.

Flu Vaccination Side Effects

Every vaccination comes with risks. Some of the known immediate side effects of the flu vaccines are:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Respiratory distress
  • Facial swelling
  • Pale gums
  • Pain at the injection site
  • Anaphylaxis (which can kill your dog in minutes)

As well as these immediate side effects, all vaccines contain substances like aluminum, mercury, formaldehyde, MSG and foreign animal proteins. These can cause long term chronic diseases in dogs … like allergies, joint disease, hypothyroidism, autoimmune diseases and even cancer.

Flu Vaccines Aren’t Effective

The other problem with flu vaccines is that they’re not effective.

That’s because flu viruses mutate year after year. For humans, the manufacturers change the vaccines every year in an attempt to keep up with the mutations.

And even then, human flu vaccines aren’t very effective … in fact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks flu vaccine effectiveness each year and it’s usually around 50% to 60%.

That’s a really low efficacy rate. And for dogs it’s even worse, because they don’t update the vaccines every year so the shots don’t keep up with mutations in the viruses.

A Bad Trade-Off

So if you vaccinate, you’re trading all the risks of vaccination for an extremely low level of protection … for a disease that has very low mortality rates and in most cases is easily treatable.

So, taking all this information into account, it turns out what you should be most afraid of is:

… the canine flu vaccine … and not the disease itself.

Dr Jean Dodds has written extensively on the H3N8 and H3N2 flu viruses and vaccines. In a recent update she said:

In regards to influenza, you probably should allow nature to run its course since the symptoms are generally mild and the fatality rate is extremely low. Your pet will more than likely develop natural immunity that will help protect against further adaptations to similar viruses.

That’s good, sensible advice from an award-winning veterinarian whose company, Hemopet, specializes in titer testing and other diagnostic blood tests for a living!


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