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Chicago — Experts say doggie day care contributed to an outbreak of dog flu in Chicago that is spreading in the Midwest.

The illness has not appeared to have spread to Michigan, although veterinarians say there are measures owners can take to limit illnesses.

The flu is believed to be caused by an Asian viral strain. In Chicago, it gained a foothold in the doggie day care centers and got an extra boost from spring break when pets were boarded in kennels.

Experts at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine said the H3N2 dog flu virus likely arose from viruses circulating in live bird markets in Asia. Before now, the strain hadn't been seen in North America. That suggests a recent introduction from Asia.

Not all infected dogs show symptoms. Some get a cough, runny nose and fever. Severe cases can lead to pneumonia and death. Animals can still spread the disease up to four weeks after they stop coughing, experts cautioned.

Six dogs have died in the Chicago-area outbreak. Cases also have been reported in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana.

Dr. Karen Michalski of Serenity Animal Hospital in Sterling Heights said dog owners can keep their dogs away from dog parks, doggie day cares and other places where dogs gather or are kenneled.

"The problem has not surfaced here in Michigan, so I'm not saying we have to do that," Michalski said. "Those are areas that could potentially be a concern for spread if it does come to this area. That would be the best way to keep an eye on the problem.

"People should be aware, but they shouldn't panic yet," she said of Michigan dog owners.

While there is a flu vaccination available for dogs, this particular strain may not respond, Michalski said.

"It's kind of up in the air if it's worthwhile vaccinate," she said. "We don't know if this is going to be effective or not."

It spread at doggie day care

Young professionals living in Chicago's high-rises have little time during the work week to play fetch and take long walks, said Beverley Petrunich, co-owner of DoGone Fun, a day care and boarding facility. When the virus emerged in Chicago, her canine clients were hit hard. Petrunich consulted with vets, then closed for five days in late March to control the outbreak.

Dogs that seemed healthy "would come in with the virus and contaminate other dogs," Petrunich said. "We decided, the only way we can stop this is to stop having the dogs interact with each other and the only way we can do that is to close."

It got a spring break boost

The virus hit just before spring break trips and Easter family gatherings, when families had reserved kennel space for their dogs. Boarded dogs caught flu from other dogs, adding to the outbreak, said Dr. Ken Goldrick, a veterinarian at Family Pet Animal Hospital in Chicago.

"We saw many families that week after Easter," Goldrick said. "They'd say, 'We boarded him for the weekend while we went to visit family, and now he's coughing.'"

Some say the epidemic isn't over.

"The majority of veterinarians are still reporting an increasing number of animals coming in with respiratory symptoms," said Dr. Donna Alexander, a vet who is administrator of the Cook County Department of Animal and Rabies Control.

Michalski of Serenity Animal Hospital said if a dog owner notices signs of illness in their pets — coughing, runny eyes, runny nose — take them to a veterinarian right away.

"The vet can submit a panel to look if a dog has a viral disease or not," she said. "Get good veterinary care and prompt treatment."

The new strain could arise in other parts of the country.

"The world is a very small place, and viruses easily travel from one part of the world to another," said Dr. Amy Glaser of Cornell. "We can expect it to happen more frequently."

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