It’s flu season for everyone and thanks to public health campaigns I trust everyone knows that the “flu”, as we commonly referred to it, is a cold based on a virus. If we are going to be technical about it, it’s the “influenza virus” and every year medical professionals try and predict which strain H1N1, or H5N6 or whatever is going to be the doozy!! Sometimes they get it (like in 2014) and sometimes they don’t (like last year). The question is, do cats and dogs get the flu? Yes they do. Again to be technical, dogs get Canine influenza and cats get Feline Influenza, these are very serious diseases and are far more common in the United States than here in Canada.
That said, your dog or your cat may come down with something that looks very much like the flu. They may feel pretty bad, they may cough and sneeze, they may run a temperature but it’s not technically the flu. Much more commonly dogs will get Kennel Cough or Bordetella and cats will get Herpes virus infections and these can make them feel just as crappy as the flu.
Kennel Cough: As the name implies, Kennel cough in dogs is passed from one dog to another. Much like my nephew, Captain Contagion, gets the flu from playgroup, dogs get their “flu” from contact with other dogs, at the dog park or at the kennel or even by picking up things that other dogs have touched, like shared water bowls or sticks and balls (the fancy word for these things is Fomite transfer – it’s a good scramble word). It can’t be transferred to humans and there has only rarely been transferred to a cat.
The symptoms are caused by two viruses and two bacteria, and they can make the dogs feel pretty miserable by affecting the cells of the sinus, throat and lungs. They cough and gag and bring up foam, run a fever and sometimes feel so sick they won’t eat; and that’s just in normal dogs. Just like in people the most vulnerable dogs, the young, the old or those with poor immune systems, can progress quickly to pneumonia and what is just a cold becomes life threatening.
When you go to see your vet and describe what’s wrong with your dog you may be surprised to see your vet do a physical exam and then give your dog’s throat a squeeze and pronounce that it is kennel cough. This may seem simple, but given the right signs, an extremely heightened cough reflex is characteristic of kennel cough (medically termed pathopneumonic – unfortunately too long for scrabble). That’s why it’s so important to see your vet as they are able to ensure that it isn’t something more serious, like a foreign body or even Canine Influenza.
Your vet will then figure out what is the best treatment for your dog. Just like people with the flu, dogs need help rehydrating, bringing their fever down and helping with their cough. Quick treatment can take a viral infection cold which may last for two to three months and make your pet feel better in a couple of days and all healed ready to race back to the dog park in a couple weeks.
Because kennel cough is only caused by the same viruses time and time again, the vaccine is very effective. It is given in the mouth every 6 months and although they can still get the bacterial component of the cough it makes the whole thing far less severe and of shorter duration.
For cats their “flu” is even more complicated. It’s caused mostly by the herpes virus, the same virus causes cold sores in people. Interestingly enough over half of cats in general and over 90% of cats who have spent time in a shelter, already have the herpes virus on board and just like people with cold sores they harbour this virus until times of stress and then “breakout” when the virus, which has hidden away in nerve endings, springs to life.
Because cats are such sensitive creatures stress to a cat can come from many sources; introduction of new even fun sibling cats or dogs to the house, construction, medical illness and even stress of their owners. In vet school all our cats used to break with “the flu” at exam time because we the vet students were so stressed.
Cats with a herpes cold may cough and sneeze, they may run a fever and their eyes may leak. They also may decrease their eating because they feel so crappy. This is a real danger because even though cats seem quite resilient, cats can develop life threatening consequences if they go without food for 24 hours thanks to evolutionary mechanisms that may have worked for ancient cats but that are life threatening to our beloved house cats.
That’s why it’s so important to go see your vet as soon as possible if your cat seems under the weather. That and interestingly enough, your cats cold may be a warning sign of something else brewing. Remember when we said that the cold can be brought on by stress? Well, that stress may be a bladder infection brewing, or a liver problem or even cancer. Many times a seemingly unstressed cat who gets sick out of the blue has led me to find another disease that because we caught it early… we were able to save the cats life! Just like in dogs, treatment for cats involves hydration, helping with the fever, opening the airways up and making them more comfortable. Unfortunately for cats there really isn’t a vaccine that can guard against all the viruses which cause colds, but keeping them healthy and happy can help prevent a cold coming on.
It’s always really important never to give your dog or cat any type of human medications or other types of supplements because their livers and kidneys work differently to ours. This includes Aspirin, ibuprofen, Tylenol and acetaminophen.
So to sum up, yep dogs and cats can and do get the flu but they are more likely in Canada to get a cold caused by viruses that aren’t influenza. It’s important to go to your vet early in the disease to prevent complications and help your pet feel better faster and please don’t give human medications or supplements to your pets without consulting your friendly neighbourhood vet clinic because some can cause serious damage to your furry friends. Best of luck making it through cold season!!! — Doctor Black and all the staff at Centretown Vet.