Remember swine flu? And bird flu? Brace yourself for canine flu. According to a new study published in the Journal of the American Society for Microbiology, dogs could be to blame for the next flu pandemic. (Cue the “man’s best friend” jokes.)
Unlike your run-of-the-mill flu outbreaks, which occur annually during flu season, a pandemic is worldwide and usually caused when a “novel” virus emerges — one that is capable of jumping from animals to people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The majority of pandemics have been associated with pigs as an intermediate host between avian viruses and human hosts,” study author Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, Ph.D., director of the Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, said in a statement.
The 2009 pandemic was linked to a pig virus (which began in birds), and the pandemic before that — way back in 1968 — also stemmed from a bird flu virus. Historically, birds and pigs have carried genetically diverse flu viruses. With so much diversity, occasionally a virus evolves that can be passed to humans.
Dogs, however, have been limited to one or two flu viruses, making it extremely rare that we could catch anything from our beloved pups. But now Garcia-Sastre and his colleagues have found that the flu virus is evolving in dogs.
Studying a group dogs in southern China, the researchers discovered that a set of pig viruses, which are “avian in origin,” had been passed along to the pooches.
According to Garcia-Sastre, “The diversity in dogs has increased so much now that the type of combinations of viruses that can be created in dogs represent potential risk for a virus to jump to a dog into a human.”
Fortunately, there is no evidence of a dog flu being passed to people yet, and researchers are hard at work making sure that never happens. They plan to study whether people may already have an immunity against the new versions of the flu virus found in dogs.
“If there is a lot of immunity against these viruses, they will represent less of a risk,” said Garcia-Sastre.
He also added in an interview with ABC News that, “At the moment, the chance of infecting a human is very low, as we have not seen any human infections yet.”
So if Fido does come down with a cough, sniffles and fever, don’t panic. If your pooch does have the flu (your vet can diagnose the illness), it is highly unlikely it’s a version you could catch.
Read more: The Flu May Be Spread Just By Breathing?!