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Cases of canine influenza in Ontario linked to imported rescue dogs

Last Updated Mar 10, 2018 at 1:46 pm EDT

Canine influenza — a relatively uncommon, yet potentially fatal respiratory disease — has been spreading through Ontario.

The infection is so rare in Ontario that most dogs aren’t vaccinated against it, which makes the recent outbreak even more troubling.

Ontario dogs haven’t been exposed to the strain and aren’t immunized against it, which has enabled it to spread quickly from a handful of dogs in central Ontario to an estimated 100 dogs.

The strain has now been found as far away as Grimsby, and has led to at least one dog’s death.

The source is believed to be mainland China.

Last month, several adult dogs were imported from China through a rescue group. They arrived with their vaccination records, but the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) does not require adult dogs to be quarantined or examined by a veterinarian upon arrival.

“When the dogs arrive at the airport, and I think this is a surprise for a lot of people, they aren’t looked over,” said Nicole Tryon, who picked up the dogs on Feb. 13.

“They come in as cargo, as commercial goods. [Customs checks] to make sure they have rabies vaccinations. They barely look into the kennels, nothing.”

According to the CFIA website and Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) guidelines, in most cases, imported pets do not require veterinary exams upon arrival or mandatory quarantine periods.

“We’ve had concerns about importing for quite a while,” said the Ontario Veterinary College’s Scott Weese, one of the authors of a 2016 report calling for tougher regulations.

“We know that when you move animals across big distances, they bring things with them and that can include a variety of diseases — and the flu has been one of those concerns. We could see this was likely to happen at some point as there are very little restrictions on how you move dogs between countries.”

Based on data collected from rescue groups, Weese believes about 6,200 rescue dogs entered Canada in 2014. But the CFIA doesn’t track all imported dogs; only very specific types require import licences.

Most of the group’s recommendations, including the accurate tracking of imported dogs, do not appear to have been adopted by the agency.

“We don’t have a lot of regulation for the animals that come in,” Weese said. “The main concern is rabies vaccination, and even that is fairly lax.”

Tryon expressed concerns about the dogs’ coughs almost immediately, but was assured by the rescue agency manager that they were suffering from the much less severe kennel cough.

The dogs spent several days in Tryon’s care with her dogs, before she took them into her home and they interacted with several other dogs.

Tryon said her dogs became ill, and oral swabs sent to a lab revealed they had contracted canine influzena. She quickly quarantined the dogs, which received antibiotics and care and are recovering.

“It’s scary,” she said. “It spread so quickly and it forced my dog’s daycare centre to close for the past few weeks to stop it from spreading. It’s costing them lots of money to stay closed and to lose out on boarding clients, but it’s the only responsible thing to do.”

Weese recommends getting your dog vaccinated if you live in or visit affected areas, including Orillia, Bracebridge or Gravenhurst

An H3N2 canine influenza vaccine is available in Canada and efforts are underway to ensure an adequate vaccine supply is present, he said.