Are we really on the brink of a dog flu pandemic?

If you’re a dog owner (or even if you’re not), you may have been alarmed by some recent headlines going around: Dogs have been identified as a potential cause for the spread of the flu — on a pandemic level.

What does this mean, though? Is there a new type of dog flu we should be afraid of? Are dogs beginning to get sick more often? Are people getting sick, too?

Don’t worry — the study sparking these headlines suggests a pandemic only as something to look out for in the future, not a certainty. The recent study identified two things: Some flu viruses can jump from pigs to dogs, and the flu viruses that infect dogs are starting to become more diverse. This is all fairly new information — the first case of recorded dog flu only appeared about 15 years ago.

Different flu virus strains jump around and mix among animal populations, referred to as “animal reservoirs.” These mixing bowl reservoirs cause the genetic diversity of strains to become more varied over time. You’ve probably heard of some of the bigger animal reservoirs, which are responsible for well-known flu viruses like swine flu and bird flu: wild birds, poultry, pigs and horses.

Now, evidence shows the beginnings of an animal reservoir with dogs. The researchers looked at flu symptoms shown by pet dogs at veterinary offices in China.

“In our study, what we have found is another set of viruses that come from swine that are originally avian in origin are now jumping into dogs and have been re-assorted with other viruses in dogs,” said study investigator Adolfo García-Sastre. “We now have H1N1, H3N2 and H2N8 in dogs. They are starting to interact with each other. This is very reminiscent of what happened in swine 10 years before the H1N1 pandemic.”

The H1N1 swine flu pandemic that García-Sastre refers to is the 2009 swine flu pandemic, which killed more than 12,000 people around the world.

At this time, nobody has ever recorded dog-to-human transmission, so a strain of dog flu would have to undergo a mutation to affect another species. In 2016, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control evaluated the likelihood of this happening and said there was only a low risk of a pandemic, according to National Geographic.

Still, because dogs are so close to humans all over the planet, experts are looking at ways to mitigate the risk of a dog flu outbreak, like flu shots for dogs. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, you can vaccinate against the H3N8 and H3N2 strains of dog flu.

Next time you get your seasonal flu shot, you might consider popping into the vet’s office so Fido can also get one, just in case.

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