A University of Guelph professor is assisting in the investigation of Canada's first-ever cases of a highly infectious dog influenza.

Scott Weese is a pathobiology professor at the Ontario Veterinary College based out of the University of Guelph, and he is part of an ongoing investigation of two dog influenza cases in Essex County.

The  two greyhound dogs were imported to the U.S. from South Korea in December 2017, where the influenza virus, also called H3N2, is widespread. The dogs were eventually brought to Essex County, marking the first time the disease has made its way into Canada.

"It's a concern because like any flu, canine flu can spread pretty widely through the dog population," Weese told Craig Norris, host of CBC K-W's The Morning Edition.

"What we want to do is keep this contained so it doesn't get out into the general public,"

The dogs made their way to Essex County after being rescued by MotorCity Greyhound Rescue, a dog rescue group based in Detroit.

MotorCity Greyhound Rescue

Members of MotorCity Greyhound Rescue posted this photo on Facebook after helping bring greyhound dogs from South Korea to Michigan in December 2017. Two of the dogs were infected with H3N1. (Facebook/MCGRGroup)

Jennifer Valdez, vice president of the rescue organization, said the dogs were vaccinated and quarantined for three months before flying to the U.S., and eventually coming to Canada. 

Thousands of infections in U.S.

Officials say two other dogs have been showing symptoms of the virus, but they have not been diagnosed.

H3N2 originated in Asia, where it is a widespread issue in some areas. The disease broke out in the U.S. in 2015 and caused thousands of infections — something Weese and his counterparts are trying to avoid in Canada.

dog from South Korea

Jennifer Valdez, vice president of the rescue organization, said the dogs were vaccinated and quarantined for three months before flying to the U.S. (Facebook/MCGRGroup)

"One of the issues with monitoring dog flu, is it doesn't look any different than other cause of respiratory disease in a dog (like kennel cough)," he says about the symptoms of canine flu, which include a cough, runny nose, fever and fatigue.

"It's really non-specific, there is nothing we can look at the dog and say 'ok that dog has flu,' versus 'that dog has something else'," he said. 

'No known risk to humans'

Unlike other strains of animal influenza, the chances of canine flu spreading directly from a dog to a human are very rare.

At this time, there is no known risk to humans, and canine flu has never before been found in humans unlike swine and avian flu.

Swine flu is a virus in pigs that historically broke out in humans. The virus had the ability to spread so quickly that it was declared a pandemic in 2009. Avian flu is another type of influenza that occurs in birds. It is more widespread among birds, but causes death in 50 per cent of human cases.

Weese says the only concern is the rare chance a dog with canine flu also gets infected with human flu and the two strains then come together to form a new flu that humans don't have immunity to.

Don't panic

"The fact that there are a lot of cases (of canine flu) in the U.S., and this hasn't been identified gives us some reassurance that (a new flu) is a potential concern but we aren't going to panic about it by any means," he said.

another dog from South Korea

Weese says the two dogs that are infected are being kept away from other dogs to stop the influenza from spreading. (Facebook/MCGRGroup)

Weese says combined flu strains  are more typical in birds or pigs, as they are more common mixing vessels of different flu viruses.

Alternatively, cats seem to be resistant to various flu viruses and at a low risk of contracting canine flu — so your household cats are safe.

Some cats have been infected with canine flu in Asia, but Weese says it's very rare.

Protecting dogs from canine flu is similar to protecting yourself from human flu.

Here are some tips:

  • If your dog is sick or looks sick, keep it home.
  • If you are out with your dog and another dog is coughing or appears sick, keep your dog away from it.
  • Don't touch dogs that are sick, if you do wash your hands so it doesn't transfer to your dog.
  • If you are really concerned or travelling to parts where canine flu is common (U.S. or Asia), get a flu shot.