At this time of year, often called “flu season,” your vet might urge you to get your dog the canine flu vaccine. But is it really necessary?
Some press reports called it “the deadly dog flu” during one outbreak a few years ago … though they didn’t actually report how many dogs had actually died from it (more about that point later).
The two companies who make dog flu vaccines also describe how easily the flu can be spread and they keep track of the latest state to have an outbreak.
So let’s dig a little deeper and see how risky the canine flu really is. First, a bit of history about the two viruses going around.
Where Did Canine Flu Come From?
The initial virus, H3N8, started in horses and transmuted to infect dogs at a greyhound track in Florida in January 2004. The virus spread rapidly to 40 states. Cats at an Indiana shelter came down with the virus in March 2016, so it can spread from one species to another.
Then a new virus, H3N2 (originally a bird virus) started in Asia (Korea, China and Thailand). In March 2015 the virus caused a dog flu outbreak in Chicago. Rumors suggested it arrived with rescue dogs that came from Asia, but that’s never been confirmed. H3N2 has now been documented in 30 US states.
But is it really the epidemic they say it is?
See If Dog Flu’s In Your State
Vaccine makers Merck Animal Health and Nobivac publish a dogflu.com website dedicated to providing scary information about dog flu. On their site there’s an “Outbreak Map” which shows just about the whole US has dog flu. Until you look a bit more closely. The states in red are the “recent cases” as of the 2021 update … and there are only 9 of them!
The site also shows a red banner update, showing a list of states with “new cases” as of December 2022. It lists only 13 states … CA, CO, DC, GA, IL, MD, MJ, MC, OK, OR, PA, TX, VA.
Even the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) says, “Canine influenza virus is not widespread in the dog population and many dogs have never been exposed to the virus.” The AVMA also says, “Most dogs get a mild case.”
They Want You To Buy Their Vaccine
As well as the scary outbreak map showing that the flu is nearly everywhere, the vaccine makers try to mislead you with headers like “Dog Flu Knows No Boundaries” … and “dogs have no natural immunity to Dog Flu because it’s a newer virus.” (But keep in mind, that also means the “newer virus” from the current year isn’t in the vaccine. Just like human flu shots, the vaccines are usually a year or more behind, and don’t include the virus that’s actually out there.)
Dog Flu Deaths
The AVMA says the death rate from canine influenza less than 10% … but veterinarian Dr Jean Dodds estimates the real fatality rate is about 2% to 3%.
She says the 10% number includes older data that’s not relevant to today’s viruses. Death rates in groups of greyhounds who developed hemorrhagic pneumonia during earlier outbreaks were higher, raising the average. So that means in the general dog population the mortality rate would be much lower.
Even the CDC says, “The percentage of dogs infected with this disease that die is very small.”
Dr Dodds also maintains that only dogs who are malnourished, have parasites or are health compromised in some way, will actually die from the flu. Most otherwise healthy animals will get over the flu easily over a two or three week period.
During a 2015 outbreak in the Chicago area, there were supposedly five deaths out of more than 1,000 reported flu cases … but it turned out that two of the dogs had died after being vaccinated for canine flu, rather than from the flu itself.
Should You Vaccinate Against Canine Flu?
Even so, when you see all the alarming information from the media, veterinarians and vaccine manufacturers, you may be wondering whether you should vaccinate your dog against canine influenza.
Flu Vaccination Side Effects
Every vaccination comes with risks. Some of the known immediate side effects of the flu vaccines are:
- Respiratory distress
- Facial swelling
- Pale gums
- Pain at the injection site
- Anaphylaxis (which can kill your dog in minutes)
As well as these immediate side effects, all vaccines contain substances like aluminum, mercury, formaldehyde, MSG and foreign animal proteins. These can cause long term chronic diseases in dogs … like allergies, joint disease, hypothyroidism, autoimmune diseases and even cancer.
Flu Vaccines Aren’t Effective
The other problem with flu vaccines is that they’re not very effective. Studies show that the main effects of the vaccine are to reduce the severity of clinical disease, viral shedding, bacterial shedding, and lung pathology.
That’s because flu viruses mutate year after year. For humans, the manufacturers change the vaccines every year in an attempt to keep up with the mutations. And even then, human flu vaccines aren’t very effective … in fact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks flu vaccine effectiveness each year explains that “recent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to those used to make flu vaccines.”
That’s a really low efficacy rate with a lot of “ifs” … and it’s likely even lower for dog flu vaccines. They don’t update the dog vaccines every year, so the shots don’t keep up with mutations in the viruses.
A Bad Trade-Off
So if you vaccinate, you’re trading all the risks of vaccination for an extremely low level of protection … for a disease that has very low mortality rates and in most cases is easily treatable.
So, taking all this information into account, it turns out what you should be most afraid of is probably the canine flu vaccine … and not the disease itself.
Dr Jean Dodds has written extensively on the H3N8 and H3N2 flu viruses and vaccines. During the 2015 outbreak she said …
In regards to influenza, you probably should allow nature to run its course since the symptoms are generally mild and the fatality rate is extremely low. Your pet will more than likely develop natural immunity that will help protect against further adaptations to similar viruses.
That’s good advice … and keep in mind there’s much less canine flu around today than there was when Dr Dodds wrote that.