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Dogs can get colds and flu, too. Here’s what to do.

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Dog influenza, kennel cough and other illnesses can be hard on your pet. We’ve got the information you need to help prevent and treat these common canine infections.
Written by Leslie Goldman
Updated on

With cold and flu season well underway, many people dread stuffy noses, sneezing and fevers. Pet owners may be surprised to learn that humans aren’t the only ones who can catch a cold or the flu. Dogs are also at risk for their own types of bugs — all year round.

“Whenever dogs spend more time indoors and in close quarters with less fresh-air circulation, like kennels or doggy day cares, viruses and bacteria spread more easily,” says Jerry Klein, DVM, chief veterinary officer for the American Kennel Club (AKC).

But no one wants Spot to have the sniffles. Even worse, you don’t want your beloved pet to catch a respiratory illness, which can develop into something more serious, such as pneumonia. Here’s the scoop on how these bacteria and viruses spread and how to help keep your dog as healthy as possible.

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Symptoms of canine cold and flu

Dogs don’t get the same colds as humans, says Amanda Schnitker, DVM, owner of Companion Animal Hospital River North in Chicago. But they are susceptible to a group of bacteria and viruses known as canine infectious respiratory disease complex (CIRDC). And these can cause symptoms similar to those of colds and the flu.

One of these bacteria is Bordetella bronchiseptica, which causes kennel cough. As with human colds, symptoms of kennel cough include runny nose, sneezing, fatigue and loss of appetite. The main symptom, though, is a loud, goose-honk cough.

Canine influenza, or flu, also falls under the CIRDC umbrella. Canine flu symptoms can overlap with those of kennel cough. Your veterinarian can determine what your dog may have by doing a physical exam and listening to the animal’s lungs.

The vet can make a definitive diagnosis by running a PCR test. PCR stands for polymerase chain reaction, and it’s a way to screen for viral and bacterial DNA. But PCR tests are somewhat expensive, Dr. Schnitker says. “And since most of these bacteria and viruses are treated very similarly, we don’t need to use the PCR test very often.”

With all respiratory infections, cases can range from mild to severe. In severe cases, pneumonia and difficulty breathing can occur. (Related reading: How to tell if your pet is in pain.)

Fortunately, most dogs with influenza will recover. About 20% of dogs that get the virus will show no symptoms, and fewer than 10% will die, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

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Treating cold and flu in dogs

If you suspect your furry friend is under the weather, it’s time to see your veterinarian. When you book your appointment, let the office know you think your dog may have a cold or the flu. Both are highly contagious. According to the AKC, your vet may ask you to wait outside until your appointment. This can lower the risk of infecting other pet patients in the waiting room.

In general, dogs diagnosed with a respiratory illness should be isolated from other dogs for 2 weeks. “But it’s hard,” Dr. Schnitker acknowledges. “Especially if you live in an urban area.” You may have to use a shared elevator to get your dog outside. And your pup’s outdoor play may be confined to a small pet area.

But do your best to avoid infecting other animals. You should stay away from doggy day cares, grooming salons and dog parks, says Dr. Schnitker. “You don’t want them to be around other dogs,” she says. “I tell people to do their best to isolate and quarantine and keep an eye on that cough. Once you haven’t heard it in 3 days, your dog is less likely to be highly contagious.”

If your dog catches the flu, it poses no threat to you. Canine influenza viruses are not contagious to humans, according to the AKC. If you’re immunosuppressed, there’s a small risk that your dog may transmit its bacterial disease to you. So consult your doctor if you have a condition that weakens your immunity, says Dr. Schnitker.

Unfortunately, there’s no medication that can cure the canine cold or flu. But your vet may recommend various remedies to help ease your doggy’s discomfort. Some suggestions:

Increase fluid intake

The risk of dehydration goes up during illness if dogs aren’t eating or drinking normally, so it’s important to try to increase their fluid intake. If your dog isn’t drinking as much as usual, try adding some ice cubes to his bowl, says Dr. Klein. The ice may make the water more appealing.

If your vet thinks your dog is at risk of serious dehydration, they may recommend an in-office procedure called subcutaneous fluid administration, where fluid is injected into a pocket under the dog’s skin. For more severe dehydration, IV fluids in a hospital setting may be necessary.

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Use a mucus-thinning medication

Guaifenesin, a key ingredient in human medications such as Mucinex®, can also help thin out canine mucus in wet, moist coughs. But it won’t work for dry, hacking ones. This should be used only as recommended by your vet for your dog’s specific problem.

Let your pup breathe from a nebulizer

Nebulizers change liquid medication into a breathable mist to help give sick pets relief. In this case, no medication is used. Instead, physiologic saline is delivered directly into the dog’s nose.

When inhaled, this can help loosen phlegm. (The effect is similar to sitting in a steamy shower.) “Clients love [nebulizers] because they see their dogs enjoy the treatment,” Dr. Schnitker says.

Treat the infection with antibiotics

If your dog becomes infected with respiratory bacteria, the vet may recommend an antibiotic. But this works only for bacteria. Antibiotics can’t treat viruses, so they won’t do any good for the flu.

Check out these 6 tricks to get your pet to take medication.

Prevention tips

Your pup can catch a virus or bacteria when a sick dog coughs, sneezes or barks. They can also pick up germs from contaminated surfaces such as water bowls, collars and kennel areas, or through contact with people who’ve had direct contact with an infected dog.

This might make you want to avoid doggy day care centers, kennels and grooming salons altogether. But there’s an easier way to help prevent certain illnesses: “Get them vaccinated and keep them up to date on their shots,” says Dr. Klein.

According to the AKC, there are 2 known strains of canine influenza in the United States: H3N8 and H3N2. And most dog-flu vaccines contain both strains, says Dr. Schnitker.

“Vaccines are wonderful and really prevent disease,” she says, adding that the dog-flu vaccine is more than 90% effective. After the initial 2 doses, shots are given annually, like human flu shots.

You can also vaccinate your pup against Bordetella bronchiseptica, which causes kennel cough. Rather than a shot, this vaccine relies on drops, which the vet can insert into the dog’s cheek pouch or nose. This treatment also gives dogs “a lot of cross-protection for the other [respiratory] pathogens that we don’t have a vaccine for,” Dr. Schnitker says.

After vaccination, if your dog comes into contact with an infected animal and picks something up, “either they won’t get sick at all, or they’ll get a really mild illness that you may not even need to go to the vet for,” says Dr. Schnitker.

Pets with suppressed immunity from chemotherapy or those with certain chronic conditions or illnesses may not be good candidates for vaccines. But your vet will counsel you on the next steps if your dog falls into either category.

The most important thing is to keep your pet healthy, which you can do by working with your vet. And to help you find the best price on canine medication, download the free Optum Perks discount card before heading to the pharmacy. Just show it at checkout to see if there are savings available.

Additional sources
Dog influenza overview: American Kennel Club
Fewer than 10% of dogs with influenza die: American Veterinary Medical Association