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Worried about dog flu? Tips to protect your pup

An outbreak of canine flu has sickened more than 1,000 dogs in the Midwest, killing a handful and stirring concern among animal lovers nationwide that the highly contagious virus could strike their pets.

"It kind of stunned most of us in the veterinary community because it spread like wildfire," veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward told CBS News.

Experts blame the epidemic on a strain of the virus called H3N2 that was first seen in Asia. It leaves pets feeling lousy for about two weeks, and there is currently no vaccine. Veterinarians believe it is very likely to spread to other parts of the country.

Click through to see what you can do to keep your pets healthy or help those that get sick.


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The most common symptoms of dog flu are high fever, cough, runny nose, watery eyes, sore throat and loss of appetite.

Steve Gilberg, a digital marketer in Chicago, says his 6-year-old pug-Chihuahua mix, Joey, got an especially bad cough. "He just started coughing really, really hard, kind of like a smoker's hacking cough, coming from the belly," Gilberg said.

Dr. Brian Collins, a companion animal veterinarian at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, New York, urges owners to pay attention to changes in behavior, such as dwindling interest in eating, drinking and playing, labored or rapid breathing, or lethargy.

"If he's always happy to eat and now he isn't, that isn't a good sign. Are they clingy when they are usually close, removed when they are usually just a bit aloof?" said Collins.


Helping a sick pet

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If your dog seems sick, start by taking its temperature. You can't just feel a dog's forehead to see if it's running a fever, Collins said. Use a digital thermometer to take readings under an armpit or in the most accurate area - the backside.

Food and fluids are important, so keep trying to entice your dog to eat and drink. With a pet that isn't eating well, offer fare that's a bit more tempting, but be careful it doesn't cause a stomachache. Try some baby food, canned meals or dry food softened with water.

Dogs probably have achy muscles, a sore throat and stuffy head while feeling tired and run down, so don't discourage long bouts of snoozing as long as they are getting up to go outside and staying hydrated.

"If he's mostly resting and seems stable and is breathing comfortably, then the more sleep, the better," Collins said.

Gilberg said his sick pup would lie in bed all day, but it helped to hold him and then his energy returned gradually.


Avoiding dog germs


Infected dogs can be contagious for two weeks, so keep pets -- sick or healthy -- away from other animals and places where they gather, such as doggie day cares, dog parks, groomers and pet stores.

Some pet businesses in Illinois closed for a few days to help stop the spread. When Gilberg took Joey to the vet, the receptionist asked them to wait out front to avoid getting other dogs sick.

The virus gets passed through the air when dogs sneeze or by people when germs jump on hands or clothing, where they can live for hours. But the canine flu doesn't infect humans.


Do drugs help?

A sign warning of canine respiratory illness is posted at a dog park in Chicago. AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

There is no vaccine for the strain currently sweeping through the Midwest. Shots are available for a similar strain seen last year, and some vets believe it could help ward off germs.

But there's no need to vaccinate dogs that are already sick, said Dr. Drew Sullivan of the Medical District Veterinary Clinic at Illinois in Chicago.

Antibiotics likely would come in if a flu-infected dog contracts pneumonia.

But doctors warn against treating dogs with cough syrup or other over-the-counter medicine in case it counteracts with other medications.

"I don't think it's going away," Sullivan said of the outbreak. "We can't treat the virus, just the symptoms."


Doggie day care

Beverley Petrunich, co-owner of DoGone Fun, a day care and boarding facility, visits with some of her clients in Chicago. AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

Flu can run rampant through doggie day care centers and kennels where many pets are kept in close quarters.

The current outbreak hit at the height of spring break season, when many families had reserved kennel space for their dogs. Boarded dogs caught flu from other dogs, adding to the outbreak, said Dr. Ken Goldrick, a veterinarian at Family Pet Animal Hospital in Chicago.

"We saw many families that week after Easter," Goldrick said. "They'd say, 'We boarded him for the weekend while we went to visit family, and now he's coughing.'"

Dr. Ernie Ward offered some advice for families that need to use these services. "If you have to take your pet to a doggie day care, a shelter, even a veterinary clinic, find out what they're doing to help mitigate the spread of this," he said. "What kind of protocols do they have in place for cleaning? Do they have protective gear? In our veterinary hospital, when we are seeing a high fever, coughing, nasal discharge case, we go into lockdown. I mean, this is something people need to take seriously because it is so contagious."

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