A virulent - and sometimes deadly - canine influenza is sweeping the U.S., and with researchers confirming the disease in Washington, D.C., this month, Maryland dog people are bracing for the worst.
A total of 13 states - including New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Jersey - have reported cases of the flu, which is not believed to affect humans, and local dog boarders and caretakers already are taking action.
They are scrubbing, disinfecting and bleaching with a vengeance. They are posting signs, sending e-mails and handing out pamphlets to inform customers.
In some cases, they are shutting their doors to dogs that might have had contact with the airborne virus, which can be spread by sneezing, coughing and unmentionable sniffing practices.
"We don't want a sick dog here. It would be devastating," said Anja Aleshin, the manager of Best Friends Pet Care in Gaithersburg. "I'm sure it's going to spread, unfortunately."
At all 42 Best Friends facilities, staff members are turning away dogs that have boarded anywhere else in the past 30 days. They are also saying "no" to rescue dogs adopted within the past month and to dogs that recently moved from Florida, where the influenza first was detected last year.
"People actually understand," said Aleshin, who takes her own dog to work at the center and then home, period, for fear of coming into contact with sick dogs. "We haven't had a problem, and we plan on not having one."
The virus was identified after greyhounds at a racetrack in Florida developed a strange respiratory infection. Researchers at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Cornell University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that the virus was related to a strain of influenza that previously had been found in horses.
Awareness of the disease comes at a time of increased concern about avian flu - which has spread from birds to humans and can be fatal. But there is no evidence that people can catch the illness from their dogs, said Dr. Cynda Crawford, a veterinarian at the University of Florida who first collected samples from sick dogs.
Symptoms include a cough, a runny nose and a low-grade fever, Crawford said. Most dogs recover without complications, but about 5 percent to 8 percent of the greyhounds Crawford has been tracking succumbed to the disease. Typically, the cause of death is a secondary bacterial infection in the lungs, like pneumonia, which can be treated with antibiotics.
But there is no cure for the underlying disease because it is viral, not bacterial. As researchers work to develop a vaccine, veterinarians can only offer sick dogs supportive care, such as rest and intravenous hydration, Crawford said.
Edward Dubovi, the director of the virology lab at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University in New York, said he has received hundreds of viral samples from pet doctors around the country. The virus hasn't been found in any Maryland dogs yet, but five of eight samples sent to him from Washington, D.C., tested positive for the flu.
One of those dogs was Seamus, a 7-month-old, white Labrador.
At first, said owner Helen Hagerty, she thought Seamus' cough, which at times sounded like gagging, was kennel cough, a common infectious disease that's usually not serious. But then he grew progressively sicker. He was lethargic. He wasn't eating.
"I came home from work one day and Seamus barely got up," Hagerty said. When her veterinarian said he suspected the flu, Hagerty whisked the dog to the animal hospital.
Sitting on the floor waiting, "his head was on my lap and he never moved the entire time we sat there. He didn't even lift his head," Hagerty said.
"He went downhill so fast. ... I don't think he would have made it through the night if we didn't bring him in."
Veterinarians hooked Seamus up to fluids and dosed him with antibiotics. He perked up enough that a couple days later, Hagerty was able to take him home. That was about two weeks ago.
"We're really, really lucky," she said.
Rebecca Bisgyer, owner of Dog-ma Daycare and Boarding for Dogs in Washington, also considers herself lucky because none of her business' dogs was struck with mortal illness. But after some came down with the flu last month, she mass e-mailed all her customers about the flu. For 10 days - up until Monday - she was admitting only dogs that were either infected or exposed to the flu at her center, and that had taken a course of antibiotics and been quarantined for two weeks. (The incubation period is two to five days.) The business canceled dozens of reservations.
"It is a huge drag," Bisgyer said. "These are like our dogs as well. You always have angst when an animal is sick."
Moreover, owners were stuck with dogs at home and business suffered. "We've lost a month's worth of business so far. It's had a huge effect on us," Bisgyer said.
In Maryland, word still is getting around slowly, and dog caretakers are responding with various degrees of caution.
At boarding and day-care facilities such as Best Friends and Chesapeake Pet Resort in Hollywood, staff are screening out dogs, but others simply are following their usual hygiene and health protocol.
Local veterinarians are recommending that owners proceed with their regular routines - but with caution.
"If your dog has to be kenneled, you want to use a reputable kennel, as you should anyway," said Dr. Mike Berbert, a veterinarian at Gaithersburg Animal Hospital. If a dog at the dog park or elsewhere looks sick or is coughing or sneezing, stay away.
Producing symptoms similar to "kennel cough," dog flu, or canine influenza, is actually a virus related to horse flu. Signs to look for if you suspect your dog has canine influenza:
Coughing and gagging for up to three weeks
Fever as high as 106
Few dogs that contact dog flu will develop pneumonia, which can be fatal.