• Surviving the H3N2 virus

  • The recent outbreak of the H3N2 virus in dogs in the Chicagoland area in Spring 2015 has been a game-changer for all of us. Our beloved clients have been worried, and a few that were in boarding kennels over Spring Break did catch it. Thankfully they all got better with veterinary treatment. One of our long-standing beloved clients came home from vacation to find her beloved Maltipoo, Rocky, hacking hoarsely. She was told every one of the many dozens of dogs in the boarding kennel caught it that week.

    Dogs in Chicago did die, heartbreakingly. Mostly these few were older, younger, or sick dogs already stressed, and living in shelters.

    Veterinarians did email clients instructing them to keep their dogs at home and not to take them anywhere there would be other dogs – no kennels, no dog parks, no daycare, and NO trips to the groomer.

    Worse, because this new strain H3N2 had never before hit dogs, and never in the USA, there were no treatments, only isolation.Dogs were found to be most infectious before showing symptoms, even if they never developed symptoms. This was a mammalian mutation of the deadly Avian flu that had killed millions of birds in Asia after 2006. Mutated and deadly to dogs, now in the Chicago area.

    Love Fur Dog’s appointments dropped by half within days because customers were worried to the point of frantic. I started posting signs, making calls, screening clients, and intensive disinfection. Some groomers closed their doors.

    In late May cases of the H3N2 were appearing in Indiana, Wisconsin, and as far away as Texas and Atlanta. The virus has also been found in cats, guinea pigs, and ferrets. USA Today featured the problem on their front page, quoting scientists calling it an EPIDEMIC.

    While extremely serious, the virus was usually not deadly to dogs. Healthy dogs survived it, even becoming “inoculated” against relapse.

    Because Saliva was identified as the easiest way to transmit the virus, we pulled up all the community water bowls and stopped allowing ANY physical contact or close proximity between dogs. It has been an affirmation of my long-standing policy not to allow dogs to walk around the shop interacting as some “cage-free” grooming facilities do. I have never believed that to be a safe or sanitary choice.

    As we watch now and worry how far this will spread nationally, the good news is at least we now know what we are dealing with. Other cities will not go through the deadly period of uncertainty that Chicago did.

    I developed protocols that kept Love Fur Dogs completely free of the H3N2:

    1. Communication
      We have spent a lot of time talking to all our clients. We give detailed descriptions of our screening, isolation, and disinfection protocols. We are clear how seriously we take the illness. I never question veterinary advice. Despite the financial cost, I dismiss no one’s fears; commending their decision to postpone grooming.
    2. Isolation
      We spread out our intake intervals and scheduled fewer dogs. We posted signs on our door and expanded our hours to have fewer dogs over a longer day.  While I had never allowed customer dogs to wander freely in my shop, we ended ALL dog to dog proximity, even that passing sniff in the lobby. If two clients missed their scheduled time and happened to be coming in or checking out at the same time, we used body blocking and leashes to prevent any close encounters, moving dogs quickly in or out. Our shop is fortunately spacious, we spread out. Though some of my clients got sick at boarding kennels over Spring Break, none of them entered my shop until weeks later when cured and cleared by a vet.
    3. Disinfection
      We switched to a bleach solution because, as one vet told me, “bleach kills everything.” We quadrupled our cleaning protocols. Hand sanitizers everywhere and used between every dog. Smocks washed repeatedly. No comb, brush, tub, or table went unbleached as we went from dog to dog.  Nothing touched a dog that wasn’t bleached before the next dog touched it. The most costly step I took was to install a UV light on our HVAC system which kills viruses, molds, fungus and bacteria in the air. Diligent disinfection will remain a permanent fixture in my shop.
    4. Screening
      Our wonderfully patient clients were thoroughly interviewed as each appointment was made – where have they been, at least 48 – 72 hours away from any other dog contact, vet cleared if they had any symptoms before we would allow them in. Only dogs who had been isolated in their homes were allowed to come in for grooming. Everyone was understanding and patient with each other, as we all knew how serious the situation was.
    5.  Home Grooming
      We had to develop mobile grooming capacity.  We groomed on kitchen counters and in basement utility sinks. We carried smaller dryers along from the shop and we sent groomers to the homes of some of our regular clients that had dogs most at risk, and who could not delay grooming. Our clients noted our extraordinary effort. They saw in deeds, not words, how much we cared.

    I worked to live the mission of love in my shop’s name, Love Fur Dogs, putting the dogs’ well-being ahead of our own at all times. Spring 2015 has been incredibly hard, but our integrity stayed evident to our clients and local veterinarians, who are now lifting their bans on sending dogs to the groomer if the dog is healthy and the shop never had infection there, as we did not. We are holding the rest of the nation’s dogs and groomers in our hearts as we watch the cases cropping up elsewhere.