Beware dog flu: scientists warn family pet could spark the next pandemic

Take cover the next time your dog sneezes – it could be passing on a new strain of a deadly flu virus with the potential to infect and kill millions around the world.

Scientists have warned that domestic dogs – anything from a loyal labrador to a precious pug – could be harbouring the virus that sparks the next big influenza pandemic.

New flu viruses are incubated in animals before they jump to humans.

The 1918 Spanish flu that killed between 50 and 100 million people is thought to have started in geese. And the milder 2009 “swine flu” pandemic was transmitted to humans via pigs, killing an estimated 245,000 people globally.

Now scientists have found domestic dogs are harbouring flu viruses with the potential to jump to humans, potentially turning man’s best friend into one of our greatest threats.

The researchers from Icahn School of Medicine in New York sequenced the genomes of 16 influenza viruses obtained from pet dogs in southern China and found they contained segments similar to the H1N1 strain responsible for the 2009 swine flu outbreak.

Flu viruses have been observed in dogs before but now the viruses are changing and starting to interact with each other, creating the possibility they will mutate further and be passed to humans.

“This is very reminiscent of what happened in swine 10 years before the H1N1 pandemic,” said Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, principal investigator of the study published in the journal mBio.

“In 2009 we were all looking for viruses in birds – there was no surveillance in pigs. Then, that pandemic came from pigs,” he said.

The researchers found the new viruses in pet dogs in China that had been taken to vets because they had respiratory problems. Previous research has only found pandemic-type flu viruses in dogs kept in confined conditions, such as kennels and dog farms in China where breeds such as golden retrievers and English sheep dogs are bred for their meat.

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