Dog Flu Diminishing, Dogs Can Again Be Social Butterflies


Dog flu incidents are way down in the Chicago area. Based on conversations with many veterinary professionals, go back to your regular lifestyles, and socialize your dogs as you want. However, be careful.

There continue to be a few hot spots, primarily southwest. There’s no predicting where future hot spots may occur, if they occur at all.

I contacted the Chicago Park District and they are changing their ‘Enter at Your Own Risk’ signage for Chicago dog parks or Dog Friendly Areas (there are replacing with signage telling dog owners that the dog flu still exists, and offering information on what symptoms to watch for).

For starters, it’s important to understand,  the dog flu is still here in the Chicago environment, and we might be living with it for a very long time, as it may have already settled in, becoming endemic. But the good news is that many clinics haven’t seen a single confirmed case in weeks.

I realize other media outlets have issued an all-clear, and even some veterinarians are suggested the “dog flu threat is over.” I don’t believe that is scientifically correct – or at least that we know that it is. I take a more conservative approach.

It’s all about risk/benefit – and at this juncture (though the situation may change again, as no one has a crystal ball) in most places around the Chicago area, the benefit to dogs exercising and socializing, and the huge benefits of positive dog training classes and bonding experiences of human-animal activities, likely outweigh current risks. Also, people do need to board dogs as they begin to go away for the summer and have them groomed, just realities.

But  Dr. Donna Alexander, administrator for the Cook County Department of Animal and Rabies Control notes risks still exists. Hence the word of warning. Obviously, stay away form sick dogs. And seek veterinary input if your own dog begins to cough, uncharacteristically skip a few meals, acts lethargic for more than a day or present any change in behavior.  The tricky part is that dogs do spread the highly contagious virus before they actually show symptoms. And some dogs get the virus, but never exhibit a symptom; they feel good but they’re cheerfully spreading the disease. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place.

Still, I feel it’s counter-productive to ask people to stop socializing with their dogs at this juncture, based a great deal of veterinary input. And people do need to get on with their lives.

So, where did the flu go? As mentioned, it may still linger here for some time. Alexander,  and others feel that enough pet owners heeded warnings from me (and many others) to limit socialization played a significant role to succeed in limiting the flu and speed its dissipating in the area.

Alexander also speculates that increased vaccination helped a lot! It’s true the current available flu vaccine is for the dog flu strain previously seen in the region (H3N8), and works quite effectively for it. No one for sure knows if that vaccine has any cross-protection for H3N2, the flu causing the current epidemic.

However, there is anecdotal evidence that the vaccine might help.  For staters, none of the dogs scientifically tested positive for for H3N2 were vaccinated for H3N8.  Alexander encourages owners of social dogs to talk with their own veterinarians about whether or not to vaccinate (if you do vaccinate, a second vaccine or booster is also required).

I personally offer that weather may actually have played a role in the flu dissipating. It’s absolute conjecture – but it’s known that the avian flu in the midwest, which is killing poultry, doesn’t like hot weather. H3N2 impacting dogs was  mutated from an avian flu in Asia. I wonder if this flu also doesn’t like hot weather. Coincidence or not, as the weather warmed, there was less flu.

Many of the sick dogs reported now are likely to be unvaccinated for kennel cough (bordetella) and may not actually have the dog flu, though there is now a specific test for H3N2 (so we can now learn if it really is H3N2).

Thousands of Chicago area pets were sickened, according Alexander. There is no Centers for Disease Control for pets, and Alexander attempted, as she could, to fulfill that role. A template didn’t previously exist for Alexander, or the Chicago veterinary community, since nothing like this had ever previously occurred. In all at least eight dogs were identified as dying as a result of the epidemic, there were likely more. In fact, it’s a credit to modern veterinary medicine that the number of deaths – whatever it was – wasn’t higher. Still, if it’s your dog, that’s no consolation. Some sick dogs that did recover required hospitalization and thousands of dollars to care for. At best many pet owners were themselves up night after night with coughing dogs.

This blog and my WGN Radio show were the first places to publicly announce that the canine influenza virus was overwhelming Chicago, then weeks later announce the flu wasn’t the strain everyone assumed (H3N8) – and turned out to be a strain of flu from Southeast Asia (H3N2).

In March, I called the Chicago Park District, and asked them to warn dogs from entering the dog parks, known as Dog Friendly Areas. Immediately, the park district, known for their bureaucratic ways, posted signage. This responsible and instant response sent a message to dog day cares (who hadn’t already closed their doors, at least for a time), dog groomers, dog trainers, and suburban park districts to pay attention. Signage also warned people before entering the City dog beaches.

At its worst, some veterinary practices were seeing over two dozen sick dogs daily, forcing clinics to clean around the clock in ways they had never done before, creating all new protocols. Veterinarians wore hazmat suits. Over time, some workers had what amounts to battle fatigue. Emergency clinics, such as Chicago Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Center, were overwhelmed.

I received so many questions, I set up an email address In several national newspaper columns, on on-air, I answered the questions, often with veterinary input.

While the H3N2 strain has spread to other states – there’s been no outbreak outside the general Chicago area region – at least, so far.

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