With winter comes cold and flu season, making coughs and sneezes rife. But it isn’t just humans who get struck down by these seasonal illnesses – our pets can too.
While many of us have an arsenal of home remedies that we can use to combat these illnesses, the same doesn’t necessarily exist for pets. So what can we do for our four-legged companions if they become ill – and how can we prevent seasonal illnesses in the future?
Cold and flu
In the same way that coughs, colds and other respiratory illnesses spread more easily when we’re indoors with other people, the same applies to our pets. Dogs often pick up illnesses after staying in kennels, attending indoor training classes or at competitive events where they’re in close contact with other dogs. Infections can quickly spread via airborne particles, by sharing drinking water or from contaminated surfaces.
We may also inadvertently carry infections to our pets, especially if we have previously handled or stroked an infected animal. Some disease-causing organisms can even remain viable on our clothes and footwear for several hours. Washing your hands, changing your clothes, and good hygiene remain simple but effective ways of limiting the spread of many infections, especially if you’re regularly in contact with several animals.
Occasionally, diseases can also be passed between species, including from animal to human and vice versa. These are called zoonotic diseases and can range from mild infections to more deadly diseases, such as rabies. In such cases, more extreme control measures are needed to control the virus – such as quarantining animals.
But if you do have a cold, your pet won’t catch it from you. The viruses that cause colds are specific to humans, though there are dog and cat versions that may cause similar cold symptoms in our canine companions and our feline friends. The good news is that they also cannot share their cold with us.
Similarly, flu tends to be species-specific, although the influenza virus is good at mutating and occasionally “jumping” the species barrier. While rare, this does mean that there is a theoretical risk of flu transmission between animals and humans. This why good hygiene and minimising close contact with other species during outbreaks is a good idea.
If your dog or cat does contract a cold, the symptoms are very similar to what we experience: sneezing, runny nose, coughing, possibly fever, tiredness and often reduced or lost appetite.
If you think your pet is sick, it’s best to speak to your vet first to ensure you get the correct diagnosis. Your pet may also need specific treatment (such as antibiotics). Never be tempted to treat your pet with human medications, however. Over-the-counter medications that are safe for us can be potentially toxic for our pets. Ibuprofen, for example, is dangerous for dogs.
There are many easy things you can do to help your pet when they’re sick. First, make sure they’re warm and comfortable, as this is essential for helping them recover. You can do this by providing extra bedding, or even pet-safe clothing for them. Many older dogs benefit from coats both indoors and out to keep old joints warm. Just make sure to wash or change their bedding regularly, to keep a pleasant environment for them to recover in. This will also help reduce the risk of the infection spreading to other pets in the household.
Rest is important. Make sure your pet has a quiet, safe space – perhaps away from people and other animals. Reducing exercise is also a good idea, especially if your pet has a respiratory infection so you don’t stress their body further.
Make sure fresh, clean drinking water is always available. If the weather is very cold, consider adding some warm water to encourage drinking. This is especially important for pets who live outdoors.
If your dog starts to cough, especially when waking – and might even gag or retch – it’s possible they’ve picked up kennel cough. This is highly infectious, and a coughing dog should be kept well away from other dogs until the coughing has stopped and they have recovered. This includes not taking a coughing dog into your vet’s waiting room. However, kennel cough cannot spread to other species of pets (such as cats).
For most otherwise healthy pets, seasonal illnesses are mild and self-limiting. Most pets recover quickly – within a few days. But if you’re at all concerned, your pet is very young or old, or suffers from other health conditions, always seek prompt advice from your vet.
Keeping pets healthy
There are many things you can do to reduce a pet’s likelihood of becoming ill.
First, keep their vaccinations up to date and ask your vet if there are any local diseases that may be of concern. While vaccinations won’t prevent everything, they will help support your pet’s health and reduce the risk of severe illness.
Keeping pets lean and at a healthy weight, feeding a balanced diet and making sure they always have clean drinking water are also simple, effective measures of supporting pet health. Keeping their sleeping area and food and water bowls clean can also reduce disease risk further.
We might share our homes, lives and sometimes beds with our pets, but fortunately, we don’t need to worry about sharing our seasonal coughs and colds with them.
Jacqueline Boyd is affiliated with The Kennel Club (UK) through membership, as Chair of the Activities Health and Welfare Subgroup, member of the Dog Health Group and Chair of the Heelwork to Music Working Party. Jacqueline also writes, consults and coaches on canine matters on an independent basis, in addition to her academic role.