Veterinarian Vanessa Yeager weighs in on how the flu virus works, how it's spread between humans and animals, and if your four-legged friend is in danger.
The seasonal flu: I can’t think of a worse time in my life than sitting on the couch like a lump, blowing my nose, aching all over, and slurping lukewarm canned chicken concoction and popping pseudoephedrine tabs in the hopes of some relief.
If you’re down with the flu this season, and you're a pet owner, you may wonder…can I give my flu to my dog?
To answer this question, we first need to talk a little about the influenza virus.
Viruses are extremely simple entities. They are essentially genetic material encased by a protein capsule. The genetic material they posses can be either DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) or RNA (ribonucleic acid). Most influenza viruses contain RNA and RNA is like the messy kid brother of DNA. It’s very prone to making errors during replication and not cleaning up after itself, which makes RNA viruses more likely to mutate than DNA viruses.
There are several types of flu viruses out there. The A form typically infects only animals; B and C forms tend to infect humans. However, not all flu viruses follow those constraints. Viruses have a creepy ability to mutate, and that leaves them open to jumping species. This is how the swine influenza (or H1N1) became infectious to humans in 2009. Swine influenza is just an example of one of a few of these rebellious rule breakers, which ironically tend to be type A influenza viruses.
Nonetheless, infectious disease scientists around the world keep close tabs on these guys, and rightly so. Flu viruses are responsible for annual epidemics and the occasional pandemic, such as H1N1, which killed an estimate upwards of 500,000 people globally in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So, in essence, flu viruses are tricky. Sometimes they obey the rules and sometimes they don’t, but under normal circumstances, the chance of passing on your human flu virus to your furry cuddle buddy is quite low. Canines cannot normally catch the type B and C influenza viruses we suffer from each year.
However, there is always a chance of rebellious influenza A viruses! According to a March 2010 article in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases, a cat was diagnosed with H1N1 in 2009 that presumably caught it from the owner. Since then, a handful of domestic animals, including dogs, cats, and ferrets, were diagnosed with H1N1 that all supposedly contracted the illness from their ill owners. However alarming this may be, these were isolated cases and certainly not reflective of the norm.
So is it possible? Yes, but it's not likely.
This flu season, don’t spend too much time tossing and turning over the fear of giving your dog your flu. Instead, focus on getting yourself well and remember to get your annual flu shot to help prevent illness in the first place.
Lastly, as I discussed last week, be sure to monitor your dog for signs of hypothermia and frostbite this winter - they're much more real dangers than the flu.
Have a healthy week and be sure to give your four-legged friend a big hug for me.