Dog ‘flu’ epidemic deals devastating blow to Svalbard during peak dogsledding season

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An epidemic of a respiratory infection known as kennel cough has spread to a large percentage of Longyearbyen’s dog population during the past couple of weeks – and is expected to infect nearly all canines before subsiding during the next several weeks – resulting in drastic reductions of dogsledding tours and other related activities during the height of the spring tourism season.

“We have been reducing our capacity with our dogs to half of what we normally do,” said Robert Nilsen, owner of Svalbard Husky. His company has 50 dogs and “we have a list of 20 we can’t use right now. I will guess before this is over all of them will get sick.”

Nilsen said he noticed dogs getting sick shortly before Easter. Kennel cough – named that because it can spread quickly among dogs in close quarters – has an incubation period of about five to seven days, with infected dogs suffering from symptoms including dry coughing, sneezing, gagging and vomiting.

“What is special here in Longyearbyen is most of the dogs here have never suffered from this infection before so they might be more troubled by it,” said Astrid Vikaune, a veterinarian who became Longyearbyen’s first full-time practitioner in 2013.

“It’s very contagious,” she said. “I think it’s safe to say this is all over town.”

However, Vikaune said “this virus this year is not a very angry form,” and advised dog owners to simply care for and comfort their animals unless more severe symptoms develop.

“They should be very careful with their dogs because their general health conditions might be weaker than normal,” she said. “That can lead to accute inflamation or heart trouble.”

At the same time, “I tell people if they don’t supect their dogs have a secondary problem don’t bring them to the vet because I can’t help, and they will bring the disease into the clinic and that’s not good,” Vikaune said.

Infected dogs are likely to be troubled by intense coughing for about 24 hours, after which it will diminish while other symptoms persist for three to four days, she said.

Local dogs received vaccinations for the virus last year but, as with the flu in humans, the shots aren’t 100 percent effective, especially against evolving strains, Nilsen said.

Although such outbreaks haven’t been a problem in Longyearbyen in the past, Vikaune said she will be surprised if a reoccurrence of the illness doesn’t happen next year.

“This is a problem with Longyearbyen being closer to world than it used to be, because a lot of people are traveling here with dogs” and therefore increasing the risk of bringing the virus here, she said.

Organizers of the annual Trappers Trail sleddog race, scheduled this weekend, considered canceling the event due to the epidemic. But Elise Strømseng, head of the Longyearbyen Hundeklubb, said it appears most of the dogs in the 22 teams that had signed up as of Wednesday afternoon appeared to be healthy and there will be health checks before the race starts at noon Saturday outside of The University Centre in Svalbard.

“The special thing we are doing this year is to have mandatory health checks at the start and finish, and this mean that all participants will have their dogs checked,” she said. “Most of the entrance fee for Trappers Trail is therefore used to make sure we have the competence from vets available during the race.”

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