A Potentially Fatal Illness Is Spreading Among Dogs. Here Are The Signs.

The mysterious outbreak has been causing respiratory symptoms in pets in several regions of the U.S. Vets share what you need to know.
Veterinarians say there are certain signs that your dog might be dealing with this respiratory illness.
Nicole Critten / 500px via Getty Images
Veterinarians say there are certain signs that your dog might be dealing with this respiratory illness.

A highly contagious upper respiratory infection is spreading in dogs across the country.

Typically, respiratory infections in dogs cause mild-to-moderate symptoms, including coughing, sneezing, nasal and eye discharge, and lethargy, that last a week or two. With this new illness, however, dogs are developing a cough that persists for six to eight weeks. Some dogs have developed pneumonia that does not respond to antibiotics, and a small percentage have died.

It’s currently unknown what’s causing the outbreak. It doesn’t appear to be the dog flu or kennel cough, the two most common respiratory diseases in dogs. Instead, it appears to be a new infectious agent or a more severe version of an existing pathogen, according to Colorado State University.

More than 200 cases have been reported in Oregon since August. Since then, the illness has been detected in the West, Midwest and Northeast. If you’re in a geographic area where cases are increasing, you should be cautious until cases subside, veterinarians recommend. So far cases have been reported in Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts and Rhode Island but could be much more widespread, according to The New York Times.

“If you are able to avoid having your dog go into a high-risk situation, like boarding, day care, kennels, dog parks, this is the time to do it,” Dr. Kelly Cairns told HuffPost. Cairns is a small-animal internal medicine veterinarian and vice president of medical excellence and education at Thrive Pet Healthcare.

It’s unclear what type of pathogen is making dogs sick.

According to the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association, cases first starting popping up in August. The dogs developed a persistent cough that lasted six to eight weeks and, in some cases, a fast-acting pneumonia that turned deadly in as little as a day.

Although the data on the current outbreak is limited, respiratory infections in general tend to be more serious in puppies, older dogs and dogs with other health conditions, Cairns said.

According to Cairns, there are a ton of pathogens, including bacteria and viruses, that can cause respiratory disease in dogs. Every so often, we go through a cycle when there’s a big respiratory outbreak. Sometimes scientists can figure out what’s causing the outbreak through testing, but other times, like now, the pathogen cannot be identified with the available tests, Cairns said.

The disease in this outbreak does not appear to be caused by the usual suspects. “We do not know what is causing it at this point in time,” Cairns said.

The affected dogs are not responding to the antibiotics that are commonly prescribed for respiratory illnesses caused by bacteria. This suggests the infection might be caused by a virus, Cairns noted.

What to do if the illness is spreading in your area.

Dr. Brian Collins, a veterinarian at the Cornell Richard P. Riney Canine Health Center, recommends keeping an eye on cases in your area. You can learn about local transmission by contacting your dog’s veterinarian. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is also providing updates on the outbreak.

Respiratory tract infections tend to be very transmissible. They usually spread through direct contact — for example, when a dog licks or plays with other dogs — and by sharing toys or water bowls, Collins explained. Dogs can also spread diseases through respiratory droplets expelled through coughing and breathing, he added.

“The more group situations you put your dog in, the higher chance they’re going to be exposed to any sort of infectious agent and they could have a chance of getting sick,” Cairns said.

If you have travel plans coming up, she suggests asking your boarding facility about the protocols and precautions they have in place to keep dogs safe. The Oregon Veterinary Medical Association recommends that dogs have a health check before interacting with other dogs in group environments.

In addition, now is the time make sure your dog is up to date on its routine vaccinations, including canine influenza, parainfluenza and Bordatella, to prevent the diseases we have vaccines for, Collins advised.

What to do if your dog develops symptoms.

If your dog develops symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection — a cough, sneezing, nasal discharge or difficulty breathing — get in touch with your veterinarian immediately. Tests can determine if your dog may have contracted another upper respiratory infection, such as canine influenza, or a secondary bacterial infection that can be treated with antibiotics.

Although antibiotics don’t appear to be effective with this illness, there are other measures that can be taken to help your dog recover. According to Cairns, supportive care, like fluids and oxygen therapy, and symptomatic therapy can be given, if needed, to help your dog rest while it heals.

“If we suspect there is a problem, the sooner we can intervene with treatment and the better the outcomes will be,” Collins said.

Finally, because this infection appears to be super contagious, it’s crucial to isolate your dog until they’ve been symptom-free for a few days. That way, you’re not only taking care of your pet, you’re also protecting other dogs.

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