AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Pet owners in the Chicago area are hearing messages like this when they check in with their veterinarians.
(SOUNDBITE OF AUTOMATED MESSAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We are experiencing an extremely high volume of phone calls regarding the current infectious tracheal bronchitis outbreak among the dog population in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. Please press seven now...
CORNISH: Vets in the region have reported more than 1,100 cases of canine infectious respiratory disease. Six dogs have died so far. Edward Dubovi is a professor of virology at Cornell University's vet school. His lab has been analyzing most of the flu samples coming out of Chicago, and he says he's been surprised by the speed at which this flu has spread.
EDWARD DUBOVI: The outbreak really went into full force around the Easter holiday when a number of people probably put their dogs into kennels, and so you had maybe a higher collection of dogs in smaller environments. And so this thing had an opportunity to expand very rapidly when - under those situations. But the extent of the outbreak so far is a bit surprising.
CORNISH: What are the symptoms of canine flu?
DUBOVI: It's - basically starts out as a simple upper respiratory tract infection. A dog may have a clear nasal discharge, a low-grade fever and sort of acting a bit depressed.
CORNISH: Help us understand the origins of this virus.
DUBOVI: Well, this is a little difficult to actually pin down. We've had a virus in the dog population in the United States since 2004. However, as we did some subsequent testing and the outbreak got a bit bigger, it became evident that this was not the normal canine influenza virus that we have been seeing in the U.S. And the preliminary evidence so far is that this virus is probably one that came out of Asia.
And it - as it turns out, our requirements for movement of companion animals into the United States are fairly lax. And we certainly have situations now where animal rescue groups are rescuing dogs in China and Korea from their meat markets, and we know for a fact that, in fact, some of those dogs have found their way into the Chicago area.
CORNISH: We've talked about what this means for the animals, but what are the risks to humans, if any - either catching it or spreading it?
DUBOVI: Right now we have no evidence that the virus is moving from the dogs into the human population. If you had a sick dog in your house it's simply - you could transmit the virus to another animal in the house through what we call fomites - just saliva or if a dog sneezes on you and you move to another animal. It certainly could be transmitted that way. One thing to note - the Asian variety of the flu is - also can infect cats.
CORNISH: So what, if any, precautions can pet owners take?
DUBOVI: Well, the problem we're faced with is there is a vaccine that's been made against the U.S. variety. We are unable at this point in time to indicate whether or not it will afford any protection against the virus we think is coming from Asia. The best thing to do right now until this calms down is to keep dogs separated as much as possible. The fewer contacts your dog has with another dog, the lesser the chance of it picking this particular virus up or any other virus for that matter.
CORNISH: Edward Dubovi - he's a professor of virology at Cornell University's vet school. Thank you so much for talking with us.
DUBOVI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.