ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We haven't heard much about the flu so far this winter. It's still early in the season and for the moment nothing unusual seems to be happening. At least, not for humans. There is a new flu virus raising concerns for dogs, and NPR health correspondent Rob Stein reports that it's spreading fast around the United States.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: When Elizabeth Estes's dog, Ollie, started coughing, she didn't think it was any big deal at first. But then Ollie got worse, way worse.
ELIZABETH ESTES: All of a sudden, he couldn't breathe and he was coughing. It was so brutal. The dog couldn't breathe. I mean, could not breathe - just kept coughing, and coughing, and coughing and gasping for air.
STEIN: Estes ended up spending the whole night on the floor of her steam shower with Ollie. He's a little Jack Russell-Chihuahua mix who's about 3. The next morning, she rushed him to the vet as soon as she could.
ESTES: And they said, when you get to the front of the building call us because you can't bring the dog in through the lobby, you have to come in through the back door. It's that contagious. So I realized at that point - wait a minute, this is something a little bit more serious than I thought it was.
STEIN: Turns out Ollie had caught a new strain of dog flu that's spreading in the United States. The vet rushed Ollie into intensive care.
ESTES: I was petrified we were going to lose him and pretty upset.
STEIN: After four days of intravenous fluids, help breathing and antibiotics to prevent complications, Ollie recovered.
ESTES: He's perfectly fine now, but it was a scary and expensive endeavor - but mostly scary.
STEIN: Ollie lives in Chicago, where the outbreak started about a year ago.
JOE KINNARNEY: Dogs, like people, move all around the world.
STEIN: Joe Kinnarney is president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
KINNARNEY: And so the thought is that a dog came in from South Korea to Chicago, and that's where it started.
STEIN: The virus has now spread to more than two dozen states. No one knows exactly how many dogs have gotten it so far, but it's probably thousands. And it looks like it spreads much easier than the old dog flu for a couple of reasons. First of all, infected dogs can spread it for weeks even if they have no symptoms. And...
KINNARNEY: Because there's no immunity at all in this country to it, dogs are getting it faster.
STEIN: Now, most dogs that catch the new flu don't get sick at all. Others only cough a bit, lose their appetites for a while and maybe get really tired. But some dogs are getting very sick - high fever, can't breathe. Some are even dying from complications like pneumonia.
KINNARNEY: The fatality rate is probably less than 10 percent, and it depends upon the condition of the dogs when they catch it, if they get really bad pneumonia, if they get secondary infection, bacterial infection and how fast they treat it.
STEIN: Dogs that spend time around other dogs are the most likely to catch it so Kinnarney is recommending a lot of dogs get a new vaccine that just became available.
KINNARNEY: If your dog goes to doggie day care, if your dog goes to the dog park, if your dog is traveling with you, you should get the vaccine. It's just not worth the risk. If your dog doesn't leave your house, you basically stay home all the time, you're at a lower risk. If your dog's not healthy, if they have other medical problems, good idea to get the vaccine.
STEIN: But other experts told me it's not that clear cut, especially if you live in a place that hasn't seen a lot of the new flu. So now it's time for some disclosure. My family has a dog - a big Bernese mountain dog named Peaches...
STEIN: ...And all this got me wondering if we should get Peaches vaccinated so I called up our vet to ask.
Hi, Dr. Gallagher?
GALLAGHER: Yes, hello.
STEIN: Hi, how are you?
GALLAGHER: I'm well, thanks. How's Peaches?
STEIN: Peaches is doing great. She's doing really well. Thanks for asking.
GALLAGHER: Oh, good.
STEIN: I started telling her about my story.
What about Peaches? Should - do I need to be worried about her?
GALLAGHER: (Laughter). Well, the short answer is, you shouldn't be any more worried than any other upper respiratory infection. It's essentially just another kennel cough disease.
STEIN: So Dr. Gallagher doesn't think we need to get Peaches vaccinated even though we take her to dog parks all the time.
GALLAGHER: It's a very contagious virus, but if she's in the dog park and she's outside, she's less likely to contract it than if she's in a doggie day care in an inside environment.
STEIN: So we probably won't get Peaches vaccinated. But after I hung up, I realized I had lots of other questions. Could we catch the virus from Peaches? Could it suddenly get worse for dogs? For that, I called Edward Dubovi. He's been tracking this new dog flu at Cornell. He says there's no evidence people can catch the flu from their dogs but there's always a chance it could mutate and get even worse for dogs.
EDWARD DUBOVI: It keeps changing. It keeps morphing. And you have to worry about mutations that may occur. It could become a more hyper-virulent virus and actually start killing a lot of dogs.
STEIN: So scientists are keeping a close eye on this new dog flu virus, and we're keeping a close eye on Peaches. Rob Stein, NPR News.