What Dog Parents Need to Know About Mysterious Dog Respiratory Illness


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The mysterious respiratory illness affecting dogs remains a mystery. However, veterinary medicine does know more today that even just a week ago.

Most urgent, despite significant news coverage – most dog owners may not yet know. Pet parents who are unaware can’t obviously make decisions, and are being caught off-guard. So, the number one suggestion on the list is to spread the word. And while no veterinary group is encouraging panic, most support knowledge so pet parents can make decision which they feel most comfortable.

What Is this Illness? According to Dr. David Needle and colleagues at the University of New Hampshire College of Life Sciences and Agriculture, notes the mysterious respiratory illness that has sickened at least hundreds and perhaps as many as thousands of dogs across the country (and a small unknown percent have died) could be caused by a new type of bacterial infection that may be very good at evading the canine immune system, as well at least some antibiotics. While this illness has newly come to light, Dr. Needle’s lab has been following the progression of this illness for about a year.

Having said that, until the specific pathogen causing this illness is identified for certain, many veterinary researchers aren’t totally ruling out a viral cause, perhaps another strain of dog flu. Currently, there are only two strains of canine influenza in the U.S. While a fungal infection isn’t likely, that is also possible.

No surprise if the pathogen is viral or fungal antibiotics don’t work. However, if the infection is indeed bacterial, then there’s a least some antibiotic resistance happening – which is scary, and reflective of what’s happening in human medicine.  The good news is that some dogs may be responsive to some antibiotics; this remains unclear.

Who This Mystery Illness Affects: Only dogs, the illness has not been reported in cats or other species and appears not to be zoonotic, which means people can’t get it (at least, this is what the evidence is, so far).

Where the Illness Has Turned Up:  Since mid-August, veterinarians in Oregon (where this all was first identified) have reported more than 200 cases, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AMVA). Numbers from other states have not yet been reported.

Those other states are:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • New Hampshire
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Washington

Experts agree that the illness has probably occurred in more states than listed here. Little doubt as pets have traveled cross-country for Thanksgiving, these locations will likely rise.

Outbreak or What? Some veterinary experts suggest that whatever the cause which is now spreading so fast, it could on its own burn itself out. Then again, it could worsen.

Prevention: While the exact mode of transmission remains unknown, University of New Hampshire’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory senior veterinary pathologist Dr. David Needle said he believes the illness is likely spread through close contact with an infected animal. In other words, similar to the way which dog flu or for that matter human flu is spread. One dog sneezes on another.  It’s not known if dogs might get this illness from sniffing at or licking at items an infected dog has held in his mouth or licked, such as a dog toy or even carpet in an elevator in an apartment building. It’s also not known if some dogs can be asymptomatic carriers, but that wouldn’t be surprising.

From what is known – at least for now – keeping dogs away from others is suggested, which means no visits to dog parks or socializing with dogs on walks. However, more challenging, no shared dog training or dog event classes (like agility), and no dog shows unless the dogs can keep a distance and/or the event is outdoors. This also ideally means no dog daycare, no dog boarding and grooming only away from other dogs.

Also, protect against what you can, especially kennel cough (Bordetella vaccine), and canine influenza virus bivalent vaccine (which protects against the both known strains).

Symptoms of the Mystery Illness (according to the AVMA): Coughing, sneezing, lack of appetite, fever, acting depressed, wheezing, discharges (from eyes and/or nose), dehydration and the most concerning may be difficulty breathing are the most prominent signs. Some dogs quickly develop an acute pneumonia, and a small percent of these have succumbed. According to at least one report, dogs who are most unlikely to survive may have other medical issues. Also, brachycephalic dogs (with limited airways, and pushed in noses) may become more ill.

However, the illness does not seem to be picky, causing disease in any dog of any age or breed or mix. And the cough associated with this illness can potentially persist for months (that’s a lot longer than kennel cough).

Treatments: There are no expectorant cough medicines for dogs, however, Oxygen therapy, use of a nebulizer (a drug delivery device used to administer medication in the form of a mist inhaled into the dog’s lungs), fluids (as often the dogs are dehydrated) and antibiotics (to treat a potential secondary infection) are what veterinarians can do. Dogs with cases who don’t require hospitalization only require lots of rest and water.