Dog Flu Epidemic: Stay Out of Dog Parks, Consider Vaccine for Dog Flu


The canine influenza virus (dog flu) outbreak is now considered to be at epidemic proportions in the Chicago area. At least five dogs have died as a result, and over a thousand have been sickened – and the number continues to grow.

The Chicago Park District took unprecedented action, posting signs at the entrances of Dog Friendly Areas in the City, warning dog owners to enter at their own risk.



The Canine Influenza Virus (the “Dog Flu”) is causing illness throughout the Chicago area. All unvaccinated dogs may be at risk. Even dogs showing no sign of illness may carry this virus. 


The virus is extremely contagious. Unvaccinated dogs exposed to the Dog Flu are more likely to contract the disease. 

Symptoms may include: 



Lack of Appetite 

Nasal Discharge 

Trouble Breathing 

If you note any of these symptoms, please keep your dog away from other pets and visit your veterinarian as soon as possible. Please remember, all social dogs are required to have the Bordetella (kennel cough) vaccine for DFA licensing. 

Dr. Cynda Crawford, Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, Gainesville, who  helped to discover the canine influenza virus 11 years ago said the virus will naturally dissipate from the area in time. However, that natural process isn’t happening overnight because nearly all dogs exposed are being exposed for the first time; 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 way to control 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.

Unfortunately, there’s some misinformation being  spread regarding the canine influenza virus vaccine. One rumor is that the canine influenza virus itself has mutated since the vaccine was first released, and the vaccine is no longer effective. Crawford says that the virus has altered, but the vaccine doesn’t require any adjustments at this time, and it remains effective.

The dog flu vaccine isn’t frequently given. There was an outbreak here in 2008, but otherwise the virus isn’t all too commonly identified. That’s a part of the problem according to Dr. Donna Alexander, administrator, Cook County Department of Animal and Rabies Control. Crawford also agrees that had more dogs been vaccinated (depending on how many dogs would have been protected) the current outbreak severity wouldn’t have been as great, or might not have happened at all if 70 percent or more of the social dogs had the vaccine. This is something to consider in the future.

For example, it’s likely more than good luck that the  The Dog Spot Petcare in Downers Grove hasn’t seen a single case. They’ve required both the vaccine for bordetella and also Canine Influenza Virus vaccine for dogs they’ve boarded for several years.

Also, despite whatever has been written or broadcast, this epidemic is not bordetella (kennel cough). And that vaccine remains suggested for social dogs, and is required to enter Chicago Park District Dog Friendly Areas. Dogs who do get the dog flu and aren’t vaccinated for bordetella may become more ill.

Finally, perhaps taking a cue from the Chicago Park District, some pet retailers are discouraging dogs from entering, and some training classes have been postponed. However, don’t be fooled. Closing a facility overnight for cleaning, and then allowing dogs the next day isn’t all that helpful. As indicated earlier, about 20 to 25 percent of exposed dogs don’t act sick, so there’s no way to know who is shedding the disease.

When I asked the Chicago Park District to discourage dog owners from entering dog friendly areas, their response was instantaneous – all about doing the right thing.  I worked with Dr. Alexander and the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) to develop the right wording for the signage. I appreciate the notes from veterinarians and pet owners, even from other cities.  I was the first to report on the canine influenza virus (in this blog), (as I was the first to report the 2008 outbreak here). The CVMA has always been and continues to support public education. Some have written that Chicago’s veterinary response has been superb, and I agree.

I appreciate all the kind words directed at me – but the Internet being what it is – not all emails or Facebook posts have been so kind. I’ve been called a “nervous Nellie” for overreacting.

I visited one Dog Friendly Area in the city, and I must admit it was kind of fun when one person – who was indeed there with his dog – happened to recognize me. “You’re that Steve Dale guy, right?”

“Yes, I am” I said.

“I know we shouldn’t be here – but my dog needs to see her friends.”

I answered, “Even at the expense of getting sick, and potentially really sick?” Odds are good that most dogs who get the canine flu need little or no supportive care, just a few days to bounce back. But too many dogs require veterinary care, and some absolutely crash. I suggested my piece on enriching activities indoors for pets.  Also, the more people who respond by, for now, keeping their dogs out of dog parks and other social situations, the sooner the virus should dissipate.

Veterinarians in some places are working double shifts attempting to care for all the sick dogs. This is not made up. And many suspect that more dogs than the 1,000 number have gotten sick. Read the tragic story of Penny in the SunTimes – one of the dogs that succumbed.

At the dog park, one guy was there with his daughter. As I walked in without a dog, she told me, “Sir, this is a park for dogs not adults.”

Usually, that’s true – but for now, I implore dog owners….Of course, don’t panic – but consider the following

– Dog walkers and dog walking companies (even if they enter a house to scoop the cat box, but there’s also a dog who lives there), create their own protocols, such as washing hands and even going so far as to wipe shoes with antibiotic wipes between clients. And, most of all,  don’t mix multiple dogs from various homes on the same walk.

– Consider not attending agility or other dog sport or dog training classes for a few weeks.  As important as dog training (especially puppy classes) are, do consider skipping some classes. My hope is that trainers will understand and will credit clients.

– Don’t board your dog if you don’t have to. If you are leaving town, ask a friend or neighbor to watch your dog.

– Dr. Donna Alexander asked  me to point out that there are many unauthorized dog parks, where people just take their pups to play. Obviously, there there will be no signage at these places (some are inherently dangerous for dogs for others reasons, such as no fencing and nearby traffic). While I hope suburban park districts take similar action to prevent dogs from entering dog friendly areas (just for a few weeks), none that I know of have taken action.

Hopefully, this problem will only be associated with the Chicago area – but it may spread, as dogs do travel – especially at this time of year.I’ve personally received calls from other states where the canine influenza virus is now suspected.

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