By Kathy Antoniotti, Beacon Journal staff writer
People long have worried that animals will make them sick.
In reality, our cuddly four-legged friends rarely make us ill.
But in the past few months, researchers have discovered humans are spreading a disease that sickens their pets.
The global outbreak of the 2009 H1N1 flu virus, first reported in North America in March, has been detected in companion animals, the American Veterinary Medical Association says.
''When you are sick, our pets sense it and will crawl up in bed with you. With the 2009 H1N1 pandemic virus, you should discourage your animals from close contact,'' said Richard Slemons, infectious disease specialist and professor of Veterinary Preventive Medicine at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Until recently, there was no reason to believe pets could get the disease, said Dr. John Weale, president of the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association.
''We didn't think it jumps from humans to animals until H1N1 started jumping to dogs and cats,'' he said.
A ferret, the first pet identified to have H1N1 in the U.S., died in October. The AVMA has determined that it probably got it from its owner, who had been ill with the virus.
Since then, the 2009 H1N1 virus, the same one that affects humans, has been confirmed in the U.S. in a small number of ferrets, cats and a dog. Most of the animals have recovered from the illness for which there is no vaccine.
Another virus, first diagnosed in 2004, appears to target only dogs. The canine flu H3N8 is an upper respiratory illness that presents with a high fever and discharges from the eyes and nose. Secondary infections can cause death if left untreated.
''At first it was a real aggressive virus that made them very sick, and a lot of dogs died. Since, then, it's changed. Not as many of them are dying,'' Weale said.
H3N8 can be in a dog's system for two weeks before symptoms appear. It is transmitted through secretions from infected dogs and can be passed from kennel workers through food, water bowls and toys, according to a Web site veterinarians use.
A drug Intervet/Schering-Plough Animal Health released last year might lessen the severity of H3N8. It's a two-dose vaccine that is administered two to four weeks apart.
Researchers don't believe people can spread the seasonal influenza to animals, or vice versa, Slemons said.
''That doesn't mean it hasn't happened. It's because everybody is terrified [of H1N1] and they are looking. If we hadn't been looking, we would never have found these cases,'' he said.
Edward Dubovi, director of the virology center at Cornell's Animal Health Diagnostic Laboratory, said there is no data to indicate the H3N8 virus is in Ohio. However, outbreaks have been reported in several states, including Kentucky, Colorado, Virginia and as close as Pittsburgh.
''If you've got breed rescue people out there bringing in dogs from infected [areas] into their home areas where there is an outbreak occurring, they are the ones spreading viruses around the country,'' Dubovi said.
Whether or not to recommend the vaccine has been a topic among animal care advocates since the vaccine was released.
Dr. Tom Mann, owner of Akron-Peninsula Veterinary Office, has the vaccine available for owners who demand it. Although he sees dogs with respiratory illness, he is not recommending the vaccine to his patients.
''Most of the dogs, when I looked at them, have been in a kennel or a boarding facility. Clinically, you can never be sure that what you are seeing is canine influenza because it resembles kennel cough,'' he said.
A survey of several boarding facilities in the area indicates most are not requiring clients be vaccinated against the H3N8 virus.
Dr. Rob Nathan, owner of Sharon Center Veterinary Hospital, said he is recommending the vaccine for at-risk patients — those that will be housed with a high concentration of dogs.
''Considering the mortality rate of 5 to 8 percent in dogs that have it, it seems like the reasonable thing to do,'' he said.
Bobbie Jo Paraskos, registered veterinary technician for the Orrville Veterinary Clinic, said dogs using the day-care center and overnight facility affiliated with the clinic must have the immunization prior to boarding.
''We recognize [H3N8] as an emerging disease, and the fact that no dog has any immunity to it, it can spread very rapidly,'' Paraskos said.
Local shelters said they are not providing the vaccine with other required inoculations. The cost is prohibitive, and most dogs are adopted before they would get the booster, said Christine Shock, community relations director for the Humane Society of Greater Akron.
Veterinarians locally are evaluating the need for the vaccine on a case-by-case basis and recommend it only for dogs that will be in kennels, shelters or in day care, Mann said.
It's best to rely on the advice of your dog's veterinarian and avoid sharing germs with your pets, Slemons said.
''Just like we do with humans, wash your hands, keep clean and isolate yourself. Those are standard procedures to protect yourself from viruses,'' Slemons said.
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