Combating the Comeback of Canine Flu

Dr. Donna Alexander, administrator of the Cook County Department of Animal and Rabies Control, happened to be on my WGN Radio show talking about the county’s low–cost rabies clinics back in 2015.

At a commercial break, my producer mentioned that she was receiving listener phone calls about coughing dogs. We took one of those calls on the air, cautiously suggesting it’s possible that the canine influenza virus (CIV) had returned to Chicago.

One lesson: Don’t assume too much.

H3N8 is the flu that spontaneously jumped species, from horses to dogs in Florida in 2005, and outbreaks occurred sporadically across the country, including a limited outbreak in Chicago. We assumed it had returned. The assumption made sense—though on the air, we only cautioned people to visit their veterinarians.

Alexander and I had no clue as to what was about to happen. Within days I heard from my own veterinarian, Dr. Natalie Marks at Blum Animal Hospital, and several other clinics also indicated that they were being overwhelmed with coughing dogs. 

Virologists agreed that the virus appeared to be CIV but realized this wasn’t H3N8. Meanwhile, with each passing day, the outbreak worsened.

I phoned Alexander and suggested she close dog parks/beaches. She said “I’m on it” so fast that I barely had the chance to say goodbye. Together, we formulated signage explaining why dog owners needed to be cautious about socializing with other dogs.

Within only two weeks, at least hundreds, if not over a thousand dogs were sickened, and some died. The famed ER clinic, Med Vet Chicago, was filled with some of the sickest dogs.

Soon the virologists found the needle in the haystack, pinpointing H3N2 somehow blowing into the Windy City from Southeast Asia, perhaps from dogs rescued from that part of the world. To this day, no one knows for sure how the virus arrived.

Protocols and systems were being put into place in clinics on the fly. I’m not exaggerating to suggest some clinics were like war zones, and veterinary technicians, as usual, stepped it up. Veterinarians even saw some clients inside their cars. It was crazy. 

Alexander and Marks (and others) continued to inform the general public. For example, they spoke about the risks of boarding dogs or taking them to daycare or groomers. Some daycare/boarding facilities were so flu laden, they had to close. My WGN radio show and my blog became sources of information (even for veterinary professionals). When the H3N2 vaccine became available (or the bivalent combo of H3N8 and H3N2 protection), I was the first to announce it.

The Chicago area veterinary community couldn’t have prepared for this, but they came together, and greatly because of Alexander. I am certain her proactive efforts saved lives.

I also mention this because Dr. Alexander passed away on June 5th of this year. Like so many veterinarians, she was a hero, though her heroics were never publicized. Whatever Alexander did, it wasn’t about her—it was about the animals.

Cook County includes Chicago and many surrounding suburbs. It’s a big place. For years, Alexander gave each and every low-cost rabies vaccine personally, which equated to hundreds. Often she’d somehow remember names of dogs when they returned the next year.

Who talks or writes about this sort of dedication? Bad news makes the press, but work ethic doesn’t. Alexander, who as a teenager appeared in the famed Breck Girls ad campaign for the shampoo, opted for veterinary medicine over modeling or show biz.

She had been staying at a hotel while her condo was being repaired after being damaged in a fire. The fire happened only hours after she returned home after appearing with me on the radio to tout those vaccines clinics, which she was so proud of, on the Sunday before she died.

She phoned on Monday to tell me about the fire, that her kitchen burned and that there was so much damage, she needed to move out. I expressed concern about her, her things…and she said, “No, no, I am calling to tell you about my neighbors’ cats.”

“Neighbors’ cats?”, I wondered.

“I trained all my neighbors on how to get their cats into carriers, should something happen,” she said. “They all got out safely. And I knew you would
be thrilled.”

She was once asked by a listener live on WGN about the dog flu vaccine, “Why vaccinate when most dogs get over the flu and only two to five percent die?”

She paused and said, “What if that two to five percent is your dog?” Not one to easily become emotional, she did—I could see it, as she added, “I’ve met owners of that two to five percent. If we have a choice that will benefit our pets—I will always advocate for them. Perhaps, it’s my mission.”

Not perhaps—this was Dr. Alexander’s mission. And may I say, ‘mission accomplished.’ +