Unknown Canine Respiratory Illness: What We Know So Far

Unknown Canine Respiratory Illness: What We Know So Far

Outbreaks of an unknown canine respiratory illness have been becoming increasingly prevalent as noted in the media over the past few months in many states across the United States. Especially this time of year, increased respiratory infections are reported among dogs, but this particular one doesn’t yet have a name – or a clear cause or treatment.

Owners are reporting symptoms that mainly include prolonged coughing, lethargy, and change in appetite. We spoke to American Kennel Club Chief Veterinarian Dr. Jerry Klein about what we know so far, and what dog owners should do to stay vigilant.

Symptoms to Look Out For

Dogs that are being treated for what is believed to be the same respiratory illness have symptoms that include coughing, significant lethargy, and a change in appetite. “If you see those together, that would warrant seeing a veterinarian,” says Dr. Klein.

“I would advise owners not to panic when their dog coughs, but to contact their veterinarian at the first sign of a cough and see what they recommend and voice their concerns,” Dr. Klein says. “Certainly visit a veterinarian or visit an emergency clinic if a cough is lingering, changes character, and doesn’t seem to go away, or if the dog becomes lethargic or goes off feed.”

These symptoms could also be the cause of other upper respiratory illnesses in dogs, like kennel cough, pneumonia, and canine influenza.

What We Know About This Canine Respiratory Illness

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) first reported cases of this canine respiratory illness in August 2023 in the Portland metro area of Oregon. From mid-August to mid-November, more than 200 cases of this illness were reported. National numbers are not known exactly because states have different reporting requirements, but cases of this canine respiratory illness have been found in Colorado, New Hampshire, and Oregon. Reuters recently reported that potential cases of the canine respiratory illness have been found in California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

Dr. Klein says that because the cause is unknown, tracking the illness is also more difficult. “We don’t know if the outbreaks that were experienced in Oregon, for example, are the same cause or causes of the dogs that were studied in New Hampshire.”

But it’s not as widespread as people may think. “I don’t think cases are as prevalent all around the country,” he says. Dr. Klein mentions that only two dogs had been brought in at the practice that he works at in Chicago with similar symptoms in the past few weeks, and these cases turned out to be Bordetella. “There may be other areas that may be worse, and certain parts of the country that may be experiencing outbreaks of something.”

In some cases, pneumonia has been reported in relation to this illness. “The dogs that got pneumonia were a little bit different than typical pneumonia cases that vets see,” Dr. Klein says. “But it doesn’t give us an idea of what it is.”

Is Unknown Canine Respiratory Illness Contagious?

Unfortunately, at the moment, there is no certain answer on whether or not this illness is contagious between dogs.

“We can’t be 100% certain on the exact means of contagion, the duration in the environment, and things like that,” Dr. Klein says. “Whether it’s a virus or bacteria, and how exactly it’s spread, we don’t know exactly.” Until researchers know more, Dr. Klein says that vets are taking extra precautions to keep dogs that are showing symptoms isolated.

Dr. Klein does say that it does appear to be contagious dog-to-dog. “We haven’t seen it in people or in cats relating to this, so we think it’s species-specific.” That being said, he emphasizes that it’s still not known how it transfers, or how it can pass between dogs in the same household, kennels, etc.

Dachshund sitting on an exam table, a vet behind it holding a stethoscope to its neck.

©Poprotskiy Alexey – stock.adobe.com

Looking For Answers Through Research

When a dog is brought in with coughing or similar symptoms, Dr. Klein says that vets have been trying to do diagnostic tests and respiratory panels when they can to rule out other known illnesses. Across the country, researchers are trying to piece together the common symptoms and potential causes to nail down whether this is something that is known, like a variant of kennel cough, a new illness entirely, or possibly multiple causes.

“Just like with humans, we have flu-like symptoms, and we go to urgent care to test for COVID, or Influenza, because these signs mimic each other,” says Dr. Klein. It is also still unknown whether or not this illness is viral or bacterial.

“Unfortunately in this case, the answers haven’t been as instant as anyone would like,” Dr. Klein says. “Veterinarians want to do the best thing for the dog. We want to be able to know what we’re treating and how to treat it properly.”

What Should You Do if You Suspect Your Dog is Sick?

If your dog has a lingering cough, owners should call and consult their vets. There might be procedures already put in place to sanitize rooms and keep offices less full so that the illness isn’t passed to other dogs in waiting rooms. In the case that this illness is contagious, Dr. Klein says it’s important to limit exposure to other dogs. “We don’t want to hurt other dogs if this is very contagious,” he says. “We don’t know how it is, so we have to go along the lines that it could be very contagious.”

In the case where these symptoms do arise, Dr. Klein says to bring your dog to the vet or emergency room. Your veterinarian can help identify and rule out other causes by running diagnostics tests, and treat anything that is identifiable in the meantime, as well as symptomatic care.

If you’re worried about the number of cases in your area, Dr. Klein urges owners to consult their veterinary offices to see if there have been cases in the area. The best people who will know of outbreaks around you will be your local vet or emergency veterinarian. “Be aware of what’s going on at your local level, and ask if they’ve seen a recent upsurge of respiratory cases,” he said. “If they have then your area may be experiencing an outbreak of something, and you should be especially prudent about how and where you handle your dog among other dogs.”

What Can You Do to Help Prevent Your Dog From Getting Sick?

Dr. Klein says that part of the rising levels of panic have to do with the unknown illness being called a “mystery illness.” “We don’t know if there’s a cause or multiple causes leading to the pronouncement of people saying their dogs are sick,” he says. “And there’s no way of knowing unless proper diagnostic tests are taken and ruled in, or ruled out, to figure out if this is one of those quote unknown cases or one of the many known cases.”

But there are still things that you can do to keep your dog safe and stay aware of the situation. “Be preemptive and keep your dog as healthy as possible,” he says. “Make sure that your dogs are up to date on all the things that we can vaccinate for that can cause illness.”

Golden Retriever eating from a stainless steel bowl indoors.

Zinkevych/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

Dr. Klein also advises trying to maintain your dog’s hygiene. Dogs should not be sharing water bowls, and food and water bowls should be frequently disinfected. He also advises washing crates often, and making sure spaces that your dog inhabits have good ventilation. “There’s no guarantee, but it’s the best thing we can do to try to help minimize possible occurrence of things,” Dr. Klein says. “We can’t control the world and the environment completely, we can only control what we can.” He says to make sure to wash your hands thoroughly and frequently, especially after handling any new or unknown dogs.

As more research is released on this illness, it’s important to stay informed, from a local level as well as a national level. “This may be something else, but we want to protect our dogs even in the best case scenario,” Dr. Klein says.

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