Dog lovers know there’s nothing quite like a good snuggle with your furry friend, but researchers are warning that all that time we spend in close quarters with our pups could one day result in a flu frenzy if we’re not careful.
Here’s the problem: In a new study published in the journal mBio, researchers are detailing an increase in what’s called the diversity of flu viruses in dogs. Different strains of flu virus are mixing and evolving, making it more likely that one version could eventually infect a human. Plus, the researchers also found evidence that the virus can spread from pigs to pups, which makes this whole situation similar to the developments that led to widespread swine flu in 2009. Yikes.
“The diversity in dogs has increased so much now that the type of combinations of viruses that can be created in dogs represent potential risk for a virus to jump to a dog into a human,” study author Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, director of the Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, said in a statement.
Luckily, dog flu hasn’t infected any humans yet, and with future research, experts can determine how best to prevent a dog flu pandemic from ever happening, he said.
So what should you know about dog flu for now–and how worried should you be?
Here’s the most comforting thing to remember: There are no reports of pet lovers (or other humans for that matter) contracting canine flu. Zero. Dogs can get the flu, yes, but it’s usually a different strain of the virus than what would make you sick. And it’s extremely rare for you to give human flu to Fido, Real Simple reported last year.
However, dogs can spread the flu to each other easily, whether by playing together at the dog park or sharing a contaminated tennis ball or water bowl. Luckily, dog flu doesn’t usually spread beyond local areas, as opposed to human flu, which, as we saw in our last flu season, can quickly spread across the whole country.
Like in humans, canine flu causes symptoms like coughing, fever, and that general ugh feeling. Most cases are mild, but, also like human flu, there are rare severe cases. “We don’t always know why this happens, but it could be that a dog gets a mixed infection with other pathogens, or is very young or very old or has a particularly weak immune system for some other reason,” Colin Parrish, PhD, professor of virology at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine previously told Real Simple.
Also like humans? There is a flu vaccine for dogs. While just about everyone should get a flu shot ever year, the dog flu vaccine isn’t recommended for every pup, according to the American Veterinary Medical Foundation. It’s reserved for at-risk dogs “that participate in activities with many other dogs or are housed in communal facilities,” according to the AVMA, which urges dog owners to talk to their vets about whether or not their furry friends should get vaccinated.
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If you’re still feeling worried about your pup’s health or your own, know that some common-sense flu protection habits can help you both. Do your best to keep your dog away from others that are sick. Limit the toys and bowls dogs share. And always wash your own hands before snuggle time if you’ve come in contact with a sick dog yourself.
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