The doggie flu shot

Flu season approacheth -- for canines as well as their human companions. You may have already gotten your own flu shot; should you inoculate your dog, too? A few things to consider:

What is the dog flu? It's properly known as "canine influenza" (…duh) – specifically, a Type A H3N8 virus that originated in horses. It has now spread and adapted to dogs (the first instance of canine infection occurred among greyhounds who shared a track facility with horses).

What are the symptoms? How is it transmitted? The H3N8 flu looks a lot like human influenza: coughing, runny nose/sneezing, and fever. A small percentage of dogs who contract the virus show no symptoms. The good news is, the dog flu mostly causes discomfort; very few dogs die from H3N8, although some may develop secondary illnesses such as pneumonia.

The virus spreads through contact with respiratory secretions – in other words, getting sneezed on, or touching/licking stuff that got sneezed on (leashes, food bowls, human caregivers). Soap and water should get rid of the germs, so if your dog does come down with it, throw those leashes and doggie sweaters in the Maytag and scrub out his bowls. And keep him home from "school" for a few days, too, until he's feeling better; that way, he won't infect other dogs. (Same goes for an outbreak among your dog-walker's clients; consider switching caregivers for a week until everyone's well again.)

Who's at risk? H3N8 has popped up in 30 states plus the District of Columbia, and spreads primarily among dogs who spend a lot of time with other dogs, or in places where dogs come and frequently -- daycare facilities, kennels, adoption centers, vet clinics, pet stores, and so on.

If Fifi stays home during the day and only takes walks around the neighborhood, she's probably at low risk.

To date, dogs haven't transmitted the virus to humans, cats, or birds, so if a sick pup sneezes in your face, it's icky – but probably not contagious. Just wash up and go about your day.

What does the flu shot do? Let's start with what the shot doesn't do: it doesn't make your dog sick. The vaccine consists of inactivated virus, so it shouldn't cause any symptoms or side effects in your pet.

But it also doesn't prevent the flu. It can curb the duration and intensity of the symptoms if your dog does come down with H3N8, but it won't stave it off entirely.

So, should I get it for my dog? Well, it's kind of a hassle – the vaccination process requires two visits to the vet, so while the shot itself isn't that pricey ($25-$35), the doctor's time could add up to a big bill. And you may have to vaccinate annually, not just one time.

But if your dog spends a lot of time around OTHER dogs – at a kennel or doggie daycare, or with a walker who has a big client list – she could be at risk. (A Bergen County, NJ animal shelter had to suspend adoptions last month after an outbreak.) And flat-nosed breeds like bulldogs or Boston terriers can be particularly prone to catching it.

Again, the flu isn't generally lethal on its own, but if your dog is older or has other medical issues, reducing the symptoms could be a good gamble for you. Either way, ask your vet what she thinks.