Mysterious respiratory illness continues to infect Wisconsin dogs

A mysterious respiratory illness continues to infect dogs and puzzle veterinarians across the country.

A wide range of symptoms have been reported in infected dogs, including flu-like symptoms, cough, nasal discharge, fever, pneumonia and kennel cough-like symptoms. However, laboratories throughout the U.S. are still unsure of what’s causing this increased rate of canine respiratory illness.

Much of the time, the illness does not respond to antibiotics. While most dogs get through the illness on their own, some dogs have experienced serious, prolonged symptoms. In rare cases, dogs have died.

Cases of the new dog respiratory illness were first reported this summer in Oregon and have been reported in numerous states since. In November, veterinarian Dr. Keith Poulsen, director of the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, told the Journal Sentinel that every state, including Wisconsin, has probably seen increased cases of atypical dog respiratory illness. 

We caught up with Dr. Poulsen to see how the illness has changed and if there have been any new findings in the past month.

Here’s what we learned.

What is the new dog respiratory illness?

When we spoke with Poulsen in November, he said veterinary experts were unsure of the viral or bacterial culprit causing increased rates of respiratory illness in dogs. In most of cases, he said, dogs were sick with respiratory illnesses or pneumonias, but their diagnostic tests came back negative or “normal,” and they were not responding to antimicrobial treatments.

A month later, he said, things remain basically the same. Researchers are still unsure whether the illness is a new pathogen or a mutated or evolved version of an existing disease, as well as whether it’s bacterial or viral.

While researchers haven’t definitively found anything new, Poulsen said increased awareness surrounding dog respiratory illness has led veterinarians to see more patients infected with known illnesses ― including streptococcus zooepidemicus, distemper, mycoplasmas and bordetella, which can also cause respiratory symptoms.

Unlike the new respiratory illness, the other diseases are vaccine-preventable or can be treated with antibiotics, Poulsen added.

Regular seasonal factors are also likely contributing to vets seeing increased rates of illness in dogs, he continued. Many of the established pathogens on the rise spread easily among dogs cooped up inside in groups. In the cold-weather months, groups spend more time indoors in boarding facilities, daycares and animal shelters.

How many cases of the new dog respiratory illness have been reported in Wisconsin?

Because so little is known about the disease and its symptoms vary, it’s virtually impossible to report and track cases, Poulsen said.

However, he said, anecdotally, many Wisconsin veterinary practices, including his wife’s office in Waunakee, have received about six-to-12 calls per day about dog respiratory illnesses during the past two months.

Experts believe COVID-era social distancing may have contributed to the new dog respiratory illness post-pandemic

Poulsen said perhaps one non-negative consequence of the new dog respiratory illness is that it’s raised pet owners’ awareness of the importance of ensuring their dogs are up-to-date on vaccines. 

“When COVID came along, the shelters emptied; everyone got a dog because they were home and they were bored,” he said. “A lot of people got dogs, but they weren’t necessarily able to get into a veterinarian, so a lot of those dogs … may not have received enough of their core vaccines.”

Potentially lower vaccine rates among dogs adopted during the pandemic could be contributing to increased rates of respiratory and other diseases in dogs right now, Poulsen said, although he added that he has no hard data, just anecdotal evidence, to support this.

COVID-era social distancing measures may also be a factor in the increased disease rates.

At the height of the pandemic, when people were almost strictly just spending time with their dogs alone rather than at dog parks, daycares or other group settings, dogs were getting sick less often due to limited exposure to others, Poulsen said. This decrease in illness rates caused many owners to forget or choose not to vaccinate their dogs because the risk of their pets getting sick was “not a top-of-mind concern,” he explained.

And, as many humans experienced, long-term social distancing can result in a dampened immune system, meaning dogs returning to group settings after years of social distancing may be more likely to get sick.

“They’re not exposed to as many pathogens, so then they don’t develop that exposure immunity. …,” Poulsen said. “It’s very similar to our human populations. When our kids were home from school, I didn’t get sick for two years, but now that my kids are back, I have one cold after another.”

Why haven’t researchers identified the new dog respiratory illness yet?

Researchers and labs across the country continue to meet regularly to attempt to solve the mystery of the new dog respiratory illness. Poulsen’s Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory is working as part of the National Animal Health Laboratory Network, which meets weekly.

In order to conduct their research, scientists rely on samples from infected dogs to analyze. Veterinarians and dog owners can help researchers further their efforts by having diagnostic testing conducted on dogs that present with respiratory symptoms.

However, diagnostic testing and veterinary care is expensive and almost never covered by the insurance plans people receive through their employers. This, coupled with inflation, has led pet owners to make difficult decisions about when they can and can’t afford to bring their dogs to the vet for testing and other care, Poulsen said.

Furthermore, even if a dog can make it to the vet to get tested, there’s usually only a small window in the timeline of a dog’s illness during which a test is effective and can collect the information needed for research.

“It can be challenging, especially if you’re busy or traveling, and you can’t get into the veterinarian right away,” Poulsen said. “You might have missed that window.”

How can I protect my pet from the new dog respiratory illness?

Poulsen offered these tips to dog owners to help protect their pet from the new dog respiratory illness and other diseases:

  • Make sure your dog is up to date on all their core vaccines, as recommended by your veterinarian.
  • Avoid visiting dog parks at peak times.
  • If your dog is sick, keep them home from daycare, and other places where they could come into contact with other dogs.
  • Keep high-risk dogs home from dog parks, dog daycare and groomers. High-risk dogs include puppies who’ve not received all of their vaccines, geriatric dogs, dogs with autoimmune diseases or other health conditions, and dogs taking immunosuppressants, steroids, cancer treatments or other drugs that could lower their immune response.
  • Schedule your dog for a wellness check with your veterinarian.
  • Talk to your vet if you have any questions or concerns.

Poulsen added that experts may offer more or different advice if and when they learn more about the new dog respiratory illness, but, “We want to make an evidence-based decision, and we don’t want a knee-jerk reaction and to make changes without really being supported by the data.”

Is the new dog respiratory illness deadly?

Poulsen said most states have reported high morbidity, or disease, rates but low mortality rates related to the new dog respiratory illness. This means they’re seeing high numbers of sick dogs, but very few are dying.

Poulsen said he’s seen “anecdotal information” about dogs dying from respiratory illnesses on social media, but the data and research do not support the idea that deaths have been common or widespread. Many dogs who have died likely had other risk factors or pre-existing conditions, he added.

“It’s about understanding the individual risk for you dog,” he said. “The majority of them that are well-vaccinated and healthy should do just fine.”

Can humans or other animals contract the new dog respiratory illness?

No, Poulsen said, it is not currently believed that dogs can pass the respiratory illness to humans or other animals, or vice versa.

“I think it’s important to say that we aren’t seeing anything that’s connected with people,” he said in November. “We don’t recognize this as a zoonotic pathogen at this point.”

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