Respiratory Illness in Dogs (2023)
The “Mysterious Illness”
There is current concern being created by the media about a “mysterious illness” in dogs this fall.1 As the media spreads the news, the main concern for veterinarians is not to cause panic, but to raise owner awareness about the contagious respiratory disease, especially going into the holiday season when many families board their pets. The chief medical officer for the Oregon Humane Society, Dr. Stephen Kochis told The New York Times, “We are not seeing an uptick in respiratory disease outside of the ordinary expectation for pets that would get respiratory disease.”2 The difference this year is that a solid etiology, or cause for the illness, has not yet been definitively identified.
As Dr. Kochis reports, respiratory illness in dogs is not uncommon. The reason for this is that several pathogens cause a similar presentation that veterinarians refer to as the Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex (CIRDC). Signs include persistent coughing (the most common sign), sneezing, nasal discharge, watery eyes, lethargy, loss of appetite, and fever.3 This group of diseases are all highly contagious, can be passed through respiratory secretions, and are seen more frequently in the fall and winter months, as more pets are confined indoors and boarded in kennels during the holidays.
Unfortunately, there are numerous possible causes for these clinical signs. At least nine different bacteria and viruses have been linked as causes of CIRDC. Co-infections, or infections with more than one bacterial or viral agent, are also very common.4 Vaccination is available for several of the viral causes and one bacterial cause of CIRDC and can be administered by a veterinarian. Due to a high number of possible causes by a wide range of viruses and bacteria, it can be difficult to diagnose the specific pathogen responsible, but most respond well to conservative treatment and supportive care. A definitive diagnosis is not often pursued, but rather the symptoms are addressed until the pets recover.
The current cause of these respiratory illnesses has not been determined. Currently, the most reported states include Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire.3 Veterinarians are being asked to report any case of respiratory illness that is severe or has not responded to traditional therapies.5 Please keep in mind this will cause a dramatic increase in the number of cases reported, but this does not necessarily correlate with increased risk or severity of the disease. At this time, experts are not noting a spike in deaths associated with the current outbreak but are still encouraging owners to reduce contact with other dogs.6
The current recommendations from veterinarians are, first and foremost, to make sure a pet is up to date on all vaccines to help reduce the severity and protect against some of the causes of CIRDC. Vaccines are available for canine parainfluenza, adenovirus type 2, influenza virus (subtype H3N2 and H3N8), distemper, and Bordetella brochispetica. The second recommendation is to know these respiratory diseases are spread through direct contact or exposure to water droplets that are created from coughing or sneezing.7 Prevention is accomplished by avoiding contact with sick pets and limiting exposure to large gatherings or groups of dogs.
Currently, the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association's recommendations8 to pet owners are:
- Reducing contact with large numbers of unknown dogs. Just like with other respiratory pathogens, the more contact/exposure a dog has, the greater the risk of encountering an infectious dog.
- Reducing contact with sick dogs. This can be harder to determine but if a dog looks sick (coughing, runny nose, runny eyes), keep other dogs away from it.
- Keep sick dogs at home and seek veterinary care.
- Avoid communal water bowls shared by multiple dogs.
- Ask your veterinarian for advice on which vaccinations your dog should have. Common vaccinations include canine influenza, Bordetella, and parainfluenza.
- If they are sick, consider having your dog tested with a PCR test to help determine the causative agent (viral/bacterial), if possible.
Even though the exact etiology/cause of some CIRDC cases this year is still unknown, experts continue to agree that the severity is not different from the historical causes of CIRDC. While some caution should be exercised to reduce the chance, that a dog may contract this disease, there is no reason to cause undo alarm at this time. If a dog exhibits signs of CIRDC, promptly have it evaluated by a local veterinarian. BSM Partners will continue to monitor the situation, and updates will be posted if recommendations or conditions change.
- Hohman, Maura. “Mystery Dog Illness Spreading in US: What Vets Know So Far.” Com, TODAY, 16 Nov. 2023, https://www.today.com/health/mystery-dog-illness-2023-rcna125553.
- Carballo, Rebecca. “Mysterious Respiratory Illness Affects Dogs in Multiple States.” The New York Times, 20 Nov. 2023.
- “Canine Respiratory Disease Outbreaks | Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 25 Aug. 2022, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments/riney-canine-health-center/canine-health-information/canine-respiratory-disease-outbreaks.
- “Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex (Kennel Cough) | American Veterinary Medical Association.” American Veterinary Medical Association, https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/pet-owners/petcare/canine-infectious-respiratory-disease-complex-kennel-cough. Accessed 21 Nov. 2023.
- “News Releases | Washington State Department of Agriculture.” Washington State Department of Agriculture, 17 Nov. 2023, https://agr.wa.gov/about-wsda/news-and-media-relations/news-releases?article=37947.
- Shafiq, Saman. “Mysterious Respiratory Dog Illness: Symptoms, Everything to Know.” USA TODAY, USA TODAY, 21 Nov. 2023, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2023/11/21/mysterious-respiratory-dog-illness-symptoms-states-everything-to-know/71652480007/.
- “Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease (a.k.a. Kennel Cough) | Animal Humane Society.” Animal Humane Society, https://www.facebook.com/animalhumanesociety/, https://www.animalhumanesociety.org/resource/canine-infectious-respiratory-disease-aka-kennel-cough. Accessed 21 Nov. 2023.
- “Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease in Oregon | Oregon Veterinary Medical Association.” Home | Oregon Veterinary Medical Association, https://www.oregonvma.org/news/reports-of-severe-canine-infectious-respiratory-disease-in-oregon. Accessed 21 Nov. 2023.
About the author: Dr. Katy Miller works as the Director of Veterinary Services at BSM Partners. She previously served for 11 years as the Director of Dog and Cat Health and Nutrition for Mud Bay. Before industry, she practiced general and emergency medicine for 7 years. She is also a competitive 3-day eventer, licensed falconer, and claims only 3 (2 Goldens and Mini Doxie) of their ten dogs.
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