Barren Chicago Dog Parks, For Now Due to Dog Flu


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For now, this is what a Chicago area dog park should look like: Empty.

In Chicago, and many suburban areas the canine influenza virus (dog flu)  is at epidemic proportions. According to Dr. Donna Alexander, administrator, Cook County Department of Animal and Rabies Control at least five dogs have died, and over a thousand dogs in the region sickened as a result of the canine influenza virus.

Dr. Cynda Crawford, Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, Gainesville,  helped to discover the canine influenza virus 11 years ago. She indicates that eventually the virus will naturally dissipate from the area. However, that natural process isn’t happening overnight because nearly all dogs exposed are being exposed for the first time; and therefore susceptible because there is no built-in immunity to the novel virus. While nearly every exposed dog will get the virus, about 2o to 25 percent don’t actually get sick. Of course, that’s great for those individuals, but their owners have no way to know their dog is carrying and spreading the virus – which is incidentally very contagious.

Crawford and other experts say the best ways to stem the epidemic is to limit exposure to other dogs – obviously to sick dogs, but since there’s no way to know which dogs are shedding virus or not, simply don’t allow dogs to socialize. That socialization where the virus is most easily spread, and occurs at dog parks, dog training classes, boarding and grooming facilities and in daycare. Also, dog walkers who take dogs from multiple homes, and mixing them on walks.

Simultaneously, there is a vaccine for the canine influenza virus which veterinarians are increasingly suggesting for social dogs. The vaccine doesn’t create overnight protection, a booster is required about two to three weeks following the initial vaccine. The dog flu vaccine not always 100 percent protective, though it can be. Much like the human flu vaccine, vaccinated individuals aren’t likely to become as ill, bouncing back faster (if they get sick at all). It’s also noteworthy that the vaccine for the dog flu appears protective against pneumonia. That’s incredibly important because pneumonia often plays a role in the death of many dogs that die of the dog flu, and certainly it’s a cause for hospitalization.

It’s a long story to tell – but years ago I was very involved in helping to formulate a group called the Dog Advisory Workgorup, which led to create dog friendly areas in Chicago. I organized the testimony to the Chicago Park District Board about the need for off-leash play areas, and together we suggested protocol for dog friendly areas (also based on the success of Wiggly Field on the near north side). That protocol is pretty much the same today. And while not all dogs should visit dogs parks (because of their temperament, or owners who don’t pay attention to their dogs), I feel invested.

It breaks my heart to see empty Dog Friendly Areas – but the Chicago Park District totally did the right thing to post signage to enter with a dog at your own risk, as I had suggested – authored by myself, the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association and Dr. Alexander. In fact, where the dog flu is common in the suburbs, those suburban park districts should follow.

Most dogs who do get the flu recover fast perhaps with some supportive care and as mentioned about a quarter of exposed dogs don’t even get sick. But who wants their dog to get sick in the first place? And while the mortality rate is low – what if it’s you? Imagine how the dog owners feel who lost their beloved family member?

As I visited Puptown and took the picture of the empty dog friendly area, one guy and his dog were about to enter. He didn’t see the warning about entering at your own risk. I pointed it out, but he was going to enter anyway. I spoke up asked if his dog was vaccinated for the dog flu. He said “no.” I then explained why the signage is there. I suggested that he and his dog might take a walk in the park (generally without socializing with other dogs it’s a safe plan), and a good long walk through the neighborhood is also great exercise. I also suggested games he can play indoors with his dog. He thanked me, and said he would follow my advice and share it with other dog owners. The more we follow the idea of limiting social contact and vaccinating, the sooner the virus will again fall under the radar.

Another concern is for communities outside Chicago, as dogs do travel (especially at this time of year), so some are concerned there will be additional outbreaks in other areas.

Story with more details about the canine influenza virus, and the Chicago metro area

Listen HERE, Dr.Brooke Bartell of Chicago Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Center provides an updates on Steve Dale’s Pet World on WGN Radio

Dr. Derrrick Landini and Dr. Natalie Marks discuss the dog flu on WGN Radio.

Helpful infographic form Chicago Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Center

Advice, and guest blog from Dr. Ann Cohen, Chicago Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Center