7 questions answered about the unidentified dog respiratory illness

An unidentified respiratory illness spreading among canines in more than a dozen states has been causing anxiety and fear among dog owners.

While the symptoms appear similar to those caused by other known canine respiratory illnesses, this new ailment does not respond as effectively to existing drugs and can lead to serious medical issues in some dogs.

But as researchers work to understand the illness, Carmen Rustenbeck, the founder and CEO of the International Boarding & Pet Services Association, cautioned against overreaction.

“I think we’re still in the panic mode from COVID,” she said. “I think we need to sometimes take a deep breath and step back.”

Here’s what you need to know about this ailment.

Is this a completely new illness or a resurgence of something pre-existing?

It’s likely that this new illness is caused by a conglomeration of familiar pathogens that commonly infect canines, said Dr. Deborah Silverstein, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

“I think right now we have no reason to definitively suspect anything mysterious or new. That doesn’t mean it is not possible,” Silverstein said. “But I do think we should try to exclude the known factors first and treat the treatable and prevent the diseases that we know are commonly culprits for this disease prevention.”

Canine infectious respiratory disease complex, also known as “kennel cough,” is a common form of respiratory illness among dogs often caused by a combination of several types of bacteria and viruses.

Silverstein said researchers are focusing on eliminating the usual suspects and deciding if a new medical response is needed.

“So many questions and so few answers, honestly,” Silverstein said.

What are the symptoms?

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) lists the following symptoms and recommends dog owners consult with their vets if they arise:

  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Labored breathing
  • Nose or eye discharge
  • Lethargy
  • Decreased appetite

In mild cases, the illness can lead to inflammation in the trachea and bronchi. More severe cases can lead to pneumonia, according to the AVMA.

Where have cases been found?

As of Dec. 4 , more than 200 cases had been reported in Oregon since the summer. Across the U.S., the illness has been found in 16 states so far.

Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

Which dogs might be most affected?

Silverstein said three canine categories may need extra care and attention if they are affected by an outbreak.

“Very young animals that are not vaccinated, very old animals, because they tend to have more coexisting illnesses that might affect their immune system, and then certain breeds … that don’t tend to have a normal respiratory tract from the day they’re born,” Silverstein said.

She said dogs with “smooshed faces” such as pugs, Boston terriers and bulldogs fall into that third category since their anatomy makes it more difficult for them to breathe.

Is there a risk of the illness spreading to other pets or humans?

At this time, Silverstein doubts there will be any jump to other pets or humans.

She explained that while it’s not impossible for the illness to mutate and affect humans and other animals, there’s no current evidence that this outbreak will spread to other species.

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“In general, the risk of people getting sick from dogs with canine infectious respiratory disease is extremely low,” AVMA President Rena Carlson said in a statement. “However, because we don’t know yet exactly what agent or agents is or are causing the current outbreak, it’s a good idea to thoroughly wash your hands after handling your or other dogs.”

What can dog owners do to avoid the illness?

One of Silverstein’s biggest recommendations is to make sure your dogs are up to date on their vaccinations.

During the COVID pandemic, many pet owners avoided visiting the vet and getting their animals vaccinated, and may have fallen off of the recommended schedule of shots, Silverstein said.

“Even if you never board your dog, but you live in a high-rise with 100 other dogs, it may still be worth it because that elevator can be an area of risk,” she said.

It’s often difficult to detect illness in your dog in general since they obviously can’t communicate in human language that something is wrong, Rustenbeck said, but keeping an eye on symptoms and changes in behavior can help owners spot a problem.

“You don’t want to overreact, but at the same time they’re just … so good at hiding their illness,” Rustenbeck said.

In general, both recommended staying informed through local vets and pet care staff in case new information comes to light or an outbreak takes place in the community.

During the COVID pandemic, many pet owners avoided visiting the vet and getting their animals vaccinated, and may have fallen off the recommended schedule of shots. Photo by Getty Images

What are boarding kennels and doggie day cares doing to prevent the spread of this illness?

Owners should be aware of the risks involved with taking their dog to boarding facilities, day cares and dog parks — places where other dogs may spread the illness, Silverstein said.

“It’s important to make sure you’re comfortable with whatever facility your dog is staying at and perhaps ask them if they’ve seen any recent animals that have developed respiratory disease after boarding there,” she said.

Rustenbeck similarly recommended that pet owners ask questions and get a feel for the service they’re considering, similar to how parents might research schools and child care options.

While the pet service industry is largely unregulated in the U.S., Rustenbeck’s organization works to educate boarding kennel and day care owners on various topics, especially maintaining healthy and clean facilities.To that end, she recommends pet owners ask if a business is affiliated with an association.

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“That means [they] usually have a code of conduct that they’re going to follow,” she said.

Rustenbeck explained that reputable kennels and day cares are “controlled environments” with on-site staff who can notice any potential sickness or problems among the dogs in their care. This is in contrast to “uncontrolled environments” like dog parks.

As part of that controlled environment, care staff often perform “snout to tail” inspections of prospective dogs to check for signs of illness. If the dog shows any symptoms, the common protocol is to put the dog in isolation and have the owners come pick them up.

Rustenbeck said, for the moment, boarding kennels and day cares are maintaining usual procedures around preventing the spread of illnesses, but will adopt new policies based on any new guidance from veterinary researchers.

“We don’t want your dog to get infected either,” she said.

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