Bulldog lying down
Fever, cough, runny nose, muscle aches — this all means one thing: It’s flu season. While you’re worrying about your own health, you might find yourself wondering about your dog.

Can he get the flu, too?

The answer is yes, but that doesn’t mean you need to panic. Canine influenza outbreaks have been reported in some parts of the country. But how do you know if your dog is at risk? And how can you protect him if he is? Should he have a flu shot? I spoke to some of my veterinary colleagues who have expert knowledge on the subject to find out what you need to know about dogs and the flu.

What Are the Risks of Canine Influenza?

The good news is that dog flu is uncommon. The bad news is that the strains veterinarians are seeing now are a newer infection, so dogs are susceptible, and it can take time for them to recover from it, says Lauren Durocher-Babek, an internal medicine specialist who practices at Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in Hillsborough and Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

“Most dogs recover uneventfully from the flu and don’t need to be hospitalized." But, she adds, "Some dogs, especially those who have weak immune systems, can develop pneumonia and require intensive care."

Dogs at greatest risk are those who spend a lot of time with other dogs. Dog parks, boarding kennels, doggy day care centers, dog groomers and dog shows are among the places where your pooch could be exposed to the canine flu viruses. Dogs are also more likely to pick up the flu if they are already sick or if their immune systems aren’t working at peak efficiency because of their age. For instance, young puppies and older dogs don’t always have fully functioning immune systems.

Some dogs aren’t necessarily at increased risk of developing respiratory infections, but they may be affected more severely if they get sick. These dogs include brachycephalic dogs — those with short muzzles — such as Bulldogs or Pugs, or dogs with small nostrils. They "already have respiratory compromise, because the nose’s openings are so small,” says internal medicine specialist Raelynn Farnsworth, DVM, who teaches at my alma mater, Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “They have breathing issues anyway, and if their noses or throats are stuffy or inflamed, it makes it even worse for them.”

How Can I Protect My Pet?

While there isn’t technically a flu season for dogs, the holidays are a time when many dogs are either boarded or are traveling with the family to Grandma’s house. You can take a couple of preventive measures, depending on your individual situation.

The best thing you can do is limit his exposure to large groups of dogs, says Tony Johnson, DVM, an internal medicine specialist who practices in Indianapolis, Indiana. If Baxter is staying home for the holidays, consider having a pet sitter come over to care for him instead of boarding him, especially if he falls into one of the aforementioned risk categories. That’s not a reflection on boarding kennels; it’s simply a recognition that just as kids are likely to pass around the sniffles at day cares or schools, dogs are more likely to be exposed to a viral infection, such as canine flu, when they come in contact with lots of other dogs.

So far, the canine flu virus has been found in at least 40 states. If you are traveling with your dog to areas where there have been outbreaks of canine flu, take common-sense precautions, such as avoiding dog parks or rest-stop pet-potty areas. Try to find a less-traveled spot for your dog’s bathroom breaks, and, of course, be sure to pick up after him.

Should My Dog Have a Flu Shot?

What about the canine flu vaccine? We all know that people need flu shots — what about dogs? Is a flu shot even an option for canines?

There are flu vaccines for dogs — in fact, four are available now. There are two vaccines that help protect against H3N8, one of which was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as long ago as May 2009. In November, two new vaccines for H3N2 were granted conditional licenses by the USDA. “The older vaccine, which was against H3N8, may not provide complete protection against the current strain, but it should help," Dr. Durocher-Babek says. "We just don’t know for sure.”

Will a flu shot help your dog? Possibly. Whether your dog can benefit from a canine flu vaccine depends on factors such as his overall health and risk of exposure to the disease. And the vaccines may not be appropriate for every dog. “In general," Dr. Durocher-Babek says, "dogs who are immunocompromised should stay away from any vaccine."

So should you call your vet today and ask about having your pooch vaccinated? Dr. Durocher-Babek says not necessarily. The vaccines don’t take effect right away, so if you are planning to travel in the next few days or weeks, there may not be time for your pet to be fully protected. “The H3N8 canine flu vaccine [consists of] two doses at least two weeks apart, and then takes another two weeks to really reach full effect," she says. She adds that if you’re already packing to head out of town, "it probably won’t help if given now."

If My Dog Gets the Flu, What Should I Do?

If you are still concerned about your dog picking up the flu virus, check with your veterinarian to see if there are reports of canine respiratory illnesses in your area or any place you’ll be traveling. If you get an affirmative, keep your dog away from large groups of other dogs.

If your dog does get the flu, there’s a good chance that his signs — cough, lethargy, sneezing and nasal discharge — will be mild.

“Very few dogs become seriously ill from canine flu,” Dr. Johnson says. “A lot of dogs will cough or feel off. In most cases, it’s really nothing more than an annoyance.” When in doubt, it’s always best to check with your veterinarian.

Keep an especially close eye on any dog, though, if he has a short snout or tiny nostrils, if he already has respiratory problems or other illnesses, or if he’s very young or old. Severe cases of flu can cause high fever and respiratory distress, and dogs can even develop pneumonia. Remember that good preventive care, such as regular vaccinations and wellness checks, help to keep your dog healthy, so he is better able to fight off any infections that come his way.

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