October 6, 2005

C.U. Scientists Study Equine Virus in Dogs

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A highly contagious equine flu virus affecting dogs may be more bite than bark, said a Cornell virologist responsible for isolating the viral strain. Currently spreading throughout New York State, the virus has so far infected nearly all exposed canines, regardless of breed.

The influenza strain, known as H3N8, was extracted at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine from tissue samples sent by researchers from the University of Florida, according to a Cornell news release. Ed Dubovi, director of the virology center at Cornell’s Animal Health Diagnostic Laboratory, was able to isolate the virus from the Florida samples.

“Right now, we have a major outbreak of this disease in all breeds of dogs in New York state,” Dubovi told the Cornell University News Service. “This infection will become a major concern for all dog owners, since 100 percent of dogs are susceptible to infection by this virus.”

Among students, however, levels of concern were at best low. For the most part, dog owners on campus were unaware of the severity of the virus, or even of its existence.

“I was definitely not aware,” said Chris Whitcomb ’06, whose Black Labrador has never before shown flu-like symptoms, but only “normal stuff – nothing like a cold.”

Even basic signs of illness in dogs might indicate a case of the flu, however. The symptoms of H3N8, said Dubovi, could be similar to “kennel cough,” a “dry-sounding spasmodic cough,” according to the Columbia Animal Hospital’s website.

Were information about the flu virus more readily available, students said, there would likely be a heightened level of concern on campus among dog owners.

“I just don’t know what I would do if my Lulu got infected,” said Ben Jabbawy ’08 of his Tibetan Terrier. “I hope that more of us with dogs at home will find out about this virus before it is too late.”

The dog flu, which according to Science Magazine is the first equine virus to jump from horses to another species, comes at a time of great distress for health officials. Many global agencies are closely monitoring the spread of the avian flu virus – another influenza strain that has jumped between species.

Unlike the dog flu, which moved between two domesticated breeds, however, the bird flu has infected humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “These flu viruses occur naturally among birds – and do not usually infect humans, but several cases of human infection with bird flu viruses have occurred since 1997.”

Though as of yet there is no evidence that the dog flu will infect humans, the possibility remains open. Dogs, often referred to as “man’s best friend,” “have the most intimate contact with humans on a daily basis, so the potential for human infection has to be in the back of our minds,” Dubovi said.

Archived article by Rob Fishman
Sun Staff Writer