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Bird Flu, Dog Flu and You - The Fears, and the Facts
and Answers to Readers' Pet Questions

by Dr. Diane Levitan

Fear often causes an erosion of facts, and one of New York Tails' major missions is to give our readers the facts from respected leaders in the pet care field. In this issue, Dr. Levitan addresses the facts about the avian flu virus and the dog flu virus, both of which have received widespread attention in the mainstream media recently.

What is avian influenza ("bird flu?")
Bird flu is an infection caused by an avian (bird) influenza (flu) viruses. Flu viruses occur naturally among birds. Wild birds all over the world carry these viruses in their intestines. Because wild birds do not often become ill from the virus, they continue to travel and are capable of spreading the viruses far and wide.

How does the bird flu spread?
Infected birds shed flu virus in their saliva, nasal secretions and feces. When birds live closely in an environment they are likely to spread the virus to each other. They also spread the virus by flying over areas and co-mingling with bird populations.

What is H5N1 bird flu and why the big deal if flu is so common?
This is an orthomyxovirus--an influenza A virus subtype that occurs mainly in birds. It is very contagious and causes very severe symptoms and can be deadly. It has caused the death of well over 100 million birds in Asia and Europe (by infection or slaughter to avoid further spread). A main concern worldwide is the grave financial repercussions that outbreaks can have on societies that rely on the poultry industry. Additionally, certain variations of the virus have infected humans and both wild and domestic cats, causing severe illness and death. For these reasons it is being tracked and controlled carefully.

"Because it can spread to cats and humans, there is a growing concern over the bird flu's potential to be a devastating epidemic if it does enter the US."

What is the risk of H5N1 bird flu in pets and people in the United States?
Firstly, the H5N1 virus does not usually infect humans but would infect domesticated birds readily. Secondly, since this virus strain has not been found in the United States (at the time of the writing of this article) and there have been no cases in humans in the US, it is unlikely a concern for bird owners in the US.

There is growing concern, however, because it can spread to cats and humans, that the H5N1 bird flu has the potential to be a devastating epidemic if it does enter the US.

Do we need to be concerned now?
Rest assured that there are global efforts as well as focused efforts in the US at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) working on a number of prevention and preparedness activities to keep the United States, you, your birds and your cats, disease free. For further information, you can access

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Canine Flu - The Fears and The Facts

What is canine influenza (Canine Flu)?
Canine influenza is a highly contagious respiratory infection that is caused by a virus. The virus (H3N8 equine influenza virus) was originally seen to infect only horses (has been in the horse population for over 40 years) and now has mutated (changed) to effect dogs as well. The form in dogs can be transmitted easily from dog to dog and now is well established in the dog population.

How common is this disease?
It was first recognized in January 2004 in Florida. Since that time, it has been seen in many states in the US. It was initially seen as outbreaks of respiratory infections in dogs at race tracks. Currently cases have been confirmed in over 20 states--some on race tracks and some in animal shelters, humane societies, rescue groups, pet stores, boarding kennels and veterinary clinics in many states; there are reports that several dogs have been treated for the virus in New York and New Jersey.

If this virus went from horses to dogs, can it spread to humans?
The H3N8 equine influenza virus has been in horses for over 40 years. In all these years, there has never been a single documented case of human infection with this virus. Therefore, although it is remotely possible that the virus could mutate to infect people, it is highly unlikely. There is no cause for alarm with regard to this virus spreading to humans.

What are the symptoms of canine influenza?
There are two clinical pictures typically seen:
Mild form: soft, moist cough for 10-30 days. Some dogs have a dry honking cough that is often present with kennel cough. Dogs may also develop thick nasal discharge often associated with secondary bacterial infection. Severe form: will have the signs above as well as high fevers and viral pneumonia which will likely have a secondary bacterial component. Rarely a pet may die from this infection (between 5-8 of every 100 infected).

How is this different from Kennel cough?
Kennel cough has very similar symptoms and consequences. Kennel cough is caused by the complex of a different kind of virus (parainfluenza virus) and bacterial infection with Bordetella bronchiseptica. It is also very contagious and can lead to pneumonia. It has been around for a very long time, and many dogs have been exposed to it and may be immune. Additionally, there is a vaccine available to decrease the incidence and severity.

How is Canine Flu treated?
Viruses are treated mainly with aggressive supportive care. Secondary bacterial infections are to be treated based on cultures of infected lungs or with broad spectrum antibiotics for nasal discharge. Antiviral medications may be available for use in these cases in the future.

Is there a vaccine for this virus?
Since it has only recently been identified, there currently is no vaccine available.

How do we protect our dogs from this virus?
Just remember that any time dogs engage in close contact they are at risk of acquiring a communicable illness. This virus is likely spread via respiratory and other mucosal secretions. Keep your dogs away from any ill dogs; wash your hands carefully after contacting other pets; and avoid boarding your pet in any facility or participating in events in which there has been a recent outbreak of kennel cough or other such respiratory illnesses.

What do I do if my dog develops a cough?
Firstly, DON'T PANIC. Dogs can develop coughs for many reasons. Kennel cough, airway allergies, collapsing trachea, heart disease, and viral infection are just some of the potential reasons for coughing in dogs. Therefore, see your veterinarian so he or she can evaluate your dog and properly address the situation. For more information go to

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Answers To Reader's Pet Questions

Dear Dr. Levitan: I have been aware of the toxic dangers of grapes for dogs, but I have been recently hearing about the terrific antioxidant factors in grapeseed extract for dogs. This is confusing to me. I give my beloved dog Shelly supplements as well as some whole foods. I am wondering if it is safe to add some grapeseed extract to her food. I appreciate any thoughts that you may have in regard to this topic. Thank you in advance for your attention to this matter. Regards, Cris and Shelly

Dear Cris and Shelly:
That is a fantastic question--Grapeseed extract is loaded with antioxidants and therefore it is a wonderful anti-inflammatory agent. Fortunately, it is also SAFE to use! Since grape toxicity has been associated with seedless grapes (as well as seeded ones) it is known that the compound does not appear to be in the seed. The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center has taken many calls where dogs have eaten the entire bottle of grapeseed extract and except for vomiting and diarrhea, they did not develop any other problems. So, if you are using it at a veterinarian's recommended dosage, it should be safe!

Dear Dr. Levitan: My husband and I are having an argument about the difference between a male and female dog. He says male dogs do not kill the grass when they pee on it and females do. I say it's malarkey. What do you say? Jeanies

Dear Jeanies:
Malarky :)

Dr. Diane Levitan is the founder and head of The Center for Specialized Veterinary Care in Westbury, Long Island, the only area veterinary hospital with a "Compassionate Care Center," where humans can comfortably stay overnight with their pets. Visit the Center at Have a question for Dr. Levitan? Send it to with "Dr. Levitan" in the subject line and she may answer it in her next column!

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Most recent update: 5/1/07
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