By now, everyone not under a rock knows about the dog flu in Louisville. And everyone knows that they should get their dog vaccinated to protect against the flu. The only problem is, the vaccine doesn’t prevent your dog from becoming infected. This blog post is about the untold truth about the vaccine, how the virus got to Louisville, how I responded to the outbreak, and why an ineffective vaccine is better than no vaccine at all.
Like it or not, Influenza type A dog viruses (H3N2 and H3N8) are here to stay. Let’s start from the beginning and learn where these viruses originated and who brought them here. This post will focus on H3N2 because of its prevalence in Louisville and how quickly it spreads, but to cover all the bases, H3N8 was originally a flu seen in horses since the 1970’s. It migrated to dogs around 2005 in Florida. There have been cases in Kentucky reported of H3N8, but nothing like its more contagious counterpart.
H3N2 flu was first seen in South Korea in 2007. Since that time it has moved around southeast Asia before winding up at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois in early 2015. This version of the Influenza type A virus started as a form of avian flu. These infected birds were flying around the outdoor meat markets in Korea when the virus made the jump to the livestock dogs. In Korea, dogs are considered food to some, and while I would never eat dog myself, I do eat meat and don’t pass judgement on different cultures. For example, folks who practice Hindu don’t believe in eating beef, and that is one of my favorite food groups (and yes, I see it as its own group). I’ve never heard a cross word from a Hindu about my cuisine preferences, so I return the favor to others.
Once American rescue organizations found out about what they deemed as horrific acts, people killing dogs for food, they wanted to stop them. Their good deed came with dire consequences. Dr. Colin Parrish, virologist at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, said in a interview that it’s believed that the virus was introduced into the US by a rescue organization trying to save dogs from the Korean meat trade.
I reached out to the Humane Society International (HSI) to understand their process for bringing dogs from South Korea where the virus began. Their Outreach Services team responded as you would expect any large non-profit organization too; total denial. They claim that they quarantine the dogs in South Korea for 30 days before transporting. That means they are holding the dogs in the same area where the virus originated. They did not provide details regarding their cross contamination protocols. They also told me that their rescue efforts had not been linked to any outbreaks in the US. But who would take blame for a massive outbreak in our dog population? Look, I’m not blaming HSI specifically, but this deadly virus has spread across the entire United States and it started right around the time HSI got involved in rescuing dogs from meat markets in South Korea. I don’t consider myself a conspiracy theorist in any form, but I am very skeptical of coincidence.
Edward Dubovi, professor of virology at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine had this to say. “We did have a second introduction of this virus into Los Angeles back in March (2017) from dogs brought out of Asia not properly quarantined, and an outbreak occurred there with a different lineage of the virus. If these groups that want to rescue dogs from Asia continue to irresponsibly bring them into the United States, then this flu is going to be reintroduced now and then as they bring in infected dogs.” Here is an example of just what Dubovi stated.
This is the part of the story where the drug manufacturers get involved. Merck Animal Health, one of the leading companies in developing a vaccine for the dog flu, began pushing their bivalent (meaning it covers both H3N8 and H3N2 strains) vaccine as the solution to our dog flu problem. The Country Club quickly reacted and made the vaccine mandatory in August of last year thinking it would protect our pack. Then came October 5th, 2017. That is the day that the flu came knocking on our front door through our Daycation program. Even though every dog in our facility was fully vaccinated, dogs still started coughing. Some even had to go the the hospital because their symptoms were so severe. What we thought was protection was really something else. We mapped the virus’s spread through our facility and the general consensus was every dog that was close to an infected dog, got the flu. Every. Single. One.
This was a very hard truth to swallow. Here I am claiming our facility is the cleanest in the nation and all our dogs were vaccinated and still, we had an outbreak. October was a tough time for The Country Club as we tried to navigate our new reality. When the flu struck again before Christmas I just became angry. I was angry at Merck for selling what I though was an ineffective vaccine. I was mad at rescue organizations that brought it to the US. I was frustrated at all the people that blamed us for their dog getting sick and all those that yelled at my staff when we cancelled reservations to prevent the spread. I cursed at the one star reviews we got as a result. I was worried about all the lost revenue on a new business and the financial strain my employees had to endure with no dogs to care for. My thoughts were in a dark place.
Knowledge and perspective shifts are what ultimately brought me back to the light. I wanted to become even more knowledgeable on the flu and how to handle the virus moving forward. The Country Club became the first boarding facility in the country to become Heroes for Healthy Pets certified. This highly recognized program helped our staff learn best practices and practical solutions for dealing with infectious diseases. I spoke with many veterinarians and attended seminars on CIRDC (Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex) and have arrived at the conclusion, if I can’t stop it from entering the building, I can mitigate the spread. My team and I developed a Contagious Protocol manual that gives us all detailed instructions on how to behave in the event of an outbreak. I added more than a dozen hand sanitizer stations in addition to the ones already in place. All this because we love our dogs and want to protect them the best we can.
It was during my rise from mental darkness that I learned more about the vaccine and its usefulness in something other than prevention. Even if the vaccine doesn’t prevent a dog from showing signs of the flu, it does reduce the clinical symptoms and the number of days they are contagious. Like most things in life, it is not a magic wand, but it does help and that’s why it’s still required at our facility. Dogflu.com is a website created by Merck that gives good information on the disease and how to spot the signs. “Prevent the spread of dog flu. A simple vaccination can keep your dog and community safe from an outbreak.” This is on the front page of their dog flu website. And even if that statement is, in my opinion, misleading, Merck has guaranteed the vaccine and paid for many hospital stays for sick animals who received it and still became ill.
Kentucky has had the 4th most cases of the canine flu in the country to date, most of which occurred in Jefferson County. This disease isn’t going away. I have seen it first hand. I have watched it spread and seen the pain it causes our beloved dogs (and our beloved owners!). We will continue to educate anyone and everyone willing to listen because knowledge is power. And the more we know, the less afraid we are. Carl Jung put it best, “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”