CHESTNUT RIDGE, N.Y. – Every inch the pampered purebred, the fluffy white dog Curry stands like a statue for his haircut at the Best Friends Pet Resort and Salon.
He looks, and is, perfectly healthy. But Curry, a bichon frise, was one sick puppy a month ago. And the Best Friends kennel was forced to close for three weeks after more than 100 other dogs began showing signs of what turned out to be a new disease: canine influenza virus, or dog flu.
“He was extremely lethargic, having a hard time breathing,” said Curry’s owner, Margaret Ragi of Upper Saddle River, N.J. “The life just wasn’t there in his eyes. We were really worried.”
Lots of dog lovers are worried these days. Experts say the flu is spreading steadily through the nation’s dogs, with no vaccine available to curb it. Perhaps 5 percent of its victims are dying.
Researchers recently found to their surprise that the virus had crossed over from horses to dogs, striking greyhounds at racetracks in 11 states. Now it has been found in pets, with cases documented in California, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon and Washington.
“One hundred percent of dogs will be susceptible,” said Edward Dubovi, director of the animal virology lab at Cornell University. “I would expect to see this infection moving through groups of dogs until a large percentage gets infected and there are a lot of immune dogs.”
Cynda Crawford, a veterinary immunologist at the University of Florida, said researchers are getting positive readings on 30 percent to 40 percent of the blood and tissue samples sent in by veterinarians who think they might be treating a dog with influenza. The symptoms include a cough, low-grade fever and a runny nose.
Many pet owners and veterinarians have been fooled because some of the symptoms mimic a common, less dangerous bacterial infection known as kennel cough.
As with human influenza, dog flu is most easily contracted in gathering places – kennels, dog shows, animal shelters, even dog runs in parks.
Dubovi said researchers are at work on a vaccine, but it could be months before it becomes available.
Some vets fear another upswing in cases at Thanksgiving and Christmas, when, as in the late summer, many people go away and put their dogs in kennels.