UF plays key role in managing new dog flu emergence

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When about a dozen sick dogs admitted to the UF College of Veterinary Medicine’s Small Animal Hospital in late May were diagnosed with a strain of highly contagious canine influenza virus — the first-ever outbreak of the virus in Florida — college officials sprang into action to alert veterinarians and pet owners throughout the state.

Experts at the college, including an assistant professor who discovered the virus more than a dozen years ago, took the lead in a response that provided important details about the virus strain known as H3N2 while debunking misinformation that was gaining traction online and elsewhere. They once again demonstrated why the college is the go-to source of reliable information and strategies when a crisis occurs among Florida’s animal population.

While the outbreak has retreated from the headlines, veterinarians around the state are still grappling with its effects.

“The state of Florida now has 100 confirmed H3N2 canine influenza cases representing dogs from 12 Florida counties,” said infectious disease specialist Cynda Crawford, D.V.M., Ph.D., who discovered the original canine influenza virus, known as H3N8, in 2004. “Florida has the largest number of cases compared to other states at this time, and at this time there are 15 states with confirmed cases.”

No dogs treated at UF have died, but multiple deaths associated with H3N2 canine influenza have been reported elsewhere in the state.

“The Maddie’s Shelter Medicine program at UF is currently assisting the Pet Alliance shelter in Orlando with its H3N2 situation, which involves 49 affected dogs,” Crawford said. “We are providing diagnostic testing to determine when each dog is safe to release from isolation.”

Crawford said the fact that more cases are being diagnosed and treated in Florida and elsewhere shows the level of awareness for veterinarians, dog owners and dog show participants and organizers has greatly increased.

“Several entities have done a very good job at providing information and awareness to veterinarians and dog owners as well as to the public,” Crawford said. “In addition to what we have done at UF, Florida’s state veterinarian has provided information to other state veterinarians and various veterinary medical associations have helped to spread the word in different states, along with the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Kennel Club.”

Soon after UF veterinarians diagnosed the first patients with the virus strain H3N2, responsible for a major 2015 outbreak in the Midwest, veterinary administrators held a hospitalwide meeting to update all employees. Hospital workers with any potential of exposure to ill patients were required to conform to strict biosafety protocols to reduce the risk of contamination within the hospital. Patients diagnosed with or suspected of having the virus were separated from other hospital patients at admission and were cared for in another building with secure access. Officials even offered a vaccine clinic for its own employees, providing faculty, staff and students with the opportunity to have their dogs vaccinated against the H3N2 virus.

Although initially the confirmed cases were dogs that had participated in specific dog shows, or dogs exposed to such dogs — and officials believe that show dogs were involved in the spread of H3N2 from state to state — later cases were believed to have contracted the virus at boarding facilities.

In addition to caring for the affected dogs and working with the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to get the word out, when the outbreak was first discovered, the college held a news conference on June 1 featuring Crawford, who responded to questions through a Facebook Live interview that drew national press coverage.

Crawford said she was proud that following UF’s widely disseminated newscast, other states followed suit in distributing news reports focusing on H3N2.

“The media do play an important role in putting out accurate information to people who need to know about this highly contagious disease,” she said.

Crawford said there had been lots of lessons learned since when she discovered the original canine influenza virus 13 years ago. Both viruses were new to dogs in the U.S. during their respective time periods and quickly spread to thousands of dogs in many states.

“What’s interesting to me is that H3N2 has been in Southeast Asia since 2006, then appeared in the U.S. in 2015. Because dogs do not have immunity to this virus, it has quickly spread through thousands of dogs in 30 states prior to this recent situation with show dogs,” she said.

“This is very much a pattern that we identified between 2004 and 2009 with the first canine influenza virus,” Crawford added. “It was new in this country, dogs didn’t have any immunity to it, it was highly contagious and it spread through the movement of infected dogs to more than a dozen states and thousands of dogs in the first five years. So, this new virus is sort of repeating a pattern of spread that the original virus showed.”

The bottom line for dog owners is that they should vaccinate their animals, Crawford said.

“All dogs should get the canine flu vaccine unless there is some contraindication,” she said. “Dogs that stay home and have their own yard and walk around the block are probably the lowest-risk group, but what if there was a need for emergency boarding and the facility requires that vaccine? We’re a dog-loving nation that needs to take our dogs everywhere, so most dogs have at least some category of a social lifestyle. And if dogs are social, they’re at higher risk.”

Information about canine influenza for veterinarians and pet owners can be found on the UF College of Veterinary Medicine website, http://hospitals.vetmed.ufl.edu/canine-influenza/.