My 80-year-old parents just spent the morning getting their annual flu vaccine at the grocery store, so I guess it's time to talk about influenza. I never thought we'd be able to get vaccinated while buying eggs, bread, and milk. Sadly, our pets can be vaccinated in the pet store where we buy kibble and toys, so I suppose it's the same thing. Unfortunately, this results in pets receiving vaccines they don't need, given too many at one time, with no discussion of overall health and immunity. But, I digress. This post is supposed to be regarding whether your pet NEEDS the influenza vaccine. The short answer: NO. But, here's the long answer:
Vaccine companies and veterinarians would like to scare each and every dog owner into believing their pets will surely die if they do not receive the influenza vaccine. Once flu season arrives, television news shows, newspapers articles, and veterinary emails start bombarding pet owners with forecasts of epidemics and significant loss of life if all dogs aren't immediately rushed in to be injected with the vaccine that is supposed to prevent influenza.
Just like human influenza, the canine influenza comes in multiple strains. About twelve years ago, the H3N8 strain of influenza mutated from infecting horses to infecting Greyhounds at racetracks in Florida. From there, the infection spread throughout the United States, making many dogs sick. Vaccine companies worked quickly to develop an influenza vaccine to protect our pets, aggressively marketing it to veterinarians and pet owners. Unfortunately, many pets were vaccinated that had no risk of coming into contact with the disease.
Two years ago a new strain of canine influenza appeared, the H3N2 virus. Veterinarians and vaccine companies recommended vaccinating every dog with the H3N8 vaccine, even though it would not protect against the H3N2 virus. But the vaccine companies came to the rescue and developed a second influenza vaccine. Now some veterinarians and vaccine companies are recommending giving dogs BOTH vaccines. We don't tell people they should get multiple flu vaccines every year; why would we do this to our pets?
Some dogs (and people) get sick when given the vaccines, with symptoms ranging from vomiting and diarrhea, to muscle aches and pain, and respiratory distress. According to the AVMA "The canine influenza vaccine is a "lifestyle" vaccine, and is not recommended for every dog. In general, the vaccine is intended for the protection of dogs at risk for exposure to the canine influenza virus". Dogs at high risk for the disease include dogs that are boarded or go to training or daycare with large groups of dogs in an endemic area.
Even though the virus has shown up in many states, there have only been a few "hot spot" areas, like Chicago and Atlanta. There is a great map that shows the incidence of the disease over the past year and a half. Unless you live in a hot spot, it makes no sense to give your dog multiple vaccinations against a disease for which there is minimal risk.
The vaccinations currently available are "conditional" vaccines, meaning they have not been fully approved, so your dogs are the test subjects to determine whether the vaccine actually works or causes harm.
Vaccines require active participation by the immune system of the animal. Over-vaccination can cause immune distress. Vaccines should only be given to healthy dogs, which rules out a large portion of the population suffering from chronic disease and inflammation. While the media, the vaccine companies, and many veterinarians would like to scare you into vaccinating your dogs, remember that not all dogs will become ill when exposed to the influenza virus. Of those infected, most will have minor symptoms, such as an annoying cough for two weeks. According to the CDC, "The percentage of dogs infected with this disease that die is very small. Some dogs have asymptomatic infections (no signs of illness), while some have severe infections. Severe illness is characterized by the onset of pneumonia." From Iowa State University's Center for Food Security and Public Health: "informal reports suggest that most cases have been characterized by relatively mild upper respiratory signs, with few deaths".
Personally, I will not vaccinate my dogs with the influenza vaccines and I do not recommend them for my patients. But I will support the immune system of my pets by providing a high quality, species-specific diet and immune system supplements.