When you’ve got the flu, all you want is to snuggle up with Netflix, Nyquil, and, if you’re a dog owner, your devoted furry friend who loves you even though you’re sniffly and miserable. But have you ever wondered: Can pets get the flu? And if you’re sick yourself, can you pass it along to them?
Yes and no, says Colin Parrish, Ph.D., professor of virology at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Dogs can and do get canine influenza, he says, but it’s caused by different strains of viruses than the ones humans most often catch. There are no reports of humans contracting canine flu, and it's extremely rare that dogs get human flu.
In other words, good news: Close contact with your pup when you have the flu is an extremely low-risk situation. That being said, there are things you can do to protect (wo)man’s best friend from the kind of flu that really can make them sick.
Some background first: In terms of symptoms, canine flu is very similar to human flu. “It’s a respiratory virus, so dogs cough a lot, they get a fever, they don’t feel well,” says Parrish. “But 99 percent of the time they recover uneventfully.”
Like human flu, though, rare cases of dog flu can be severe or even life threatening. “We don’t always know why this happens,” says Parrish, “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.”
Luckily, canine flu isn’t prevalent all the time across the entire country. Outbreaks do occur, however, like the one that’s been going on for a few years in Chicago and across the Midwest, or the several hundred cases reported in and around Atlanta in 2015.
And when these virus strains are actively circulating, pet owners should take extra precautions—like getting Fido a flu vaccine. Yes, flu shots exist for dogs, although the American Veterinary Medical Association doesn’t recommend them for every dog. Mainly, they’re intended for dogs who socialize with lots of other dogs or are housed in shelters or kennels, in regions where the virus is prevalent. (Cats, by the way, can occasionally get canine flu or other strains of influenza. But no feline-friendly vaccine is currently approved for these specific viruses.)
“If I lived in Chicago, I would probably vaccinate right now—and keep my dog away from the dog park for a while, until the outbreak died down,” says Parrish. He notes that the canine flu vaccine, like the human vaccine, doesn’t provide 100 percent protection. “There’s still some chance of infection, but they’re a lot better than nothing if you have a lot of flu circulating in your area.”
And another alternative may soon be available. Earlier this year, Parrish—along with researchers at the University of Rochester—published promising results for two new dog-flu vaccines that could be delivered as a nasal spray, like the human FluMist vaccine. The sprays would only require one dose (as opposed to two shots, several weeks apart) and seem to offer longer, better protection than the current vaccines on the market. But they’ve only been tested in mice so far, and it may be several years before they’re commercially available.
If you don’t live in an area where dog flu is prevalent, Parrish says that common-sense prevention techniques can work for pets, just as they can for humans: “If you come into contact with an infected dog or you visit a kennel or animal shelter, wash your hands with soap and water before you handle your own animals."