Are fears of mysterious dog illness overblown? Vets weigh in – NPR

Are fears of mysterious dog illness overblown? Vets weigh in - NPR

The Mysterious Canine Respiratory Illness: What Pet Owners Need to Know

The Panic Among Dog Owners

Reports of an outbreak of a mysterious respiratory illness that afflicts dogs have put many pet owners on edge in recent weeks. Social media is filled with increasingly distressing headlines and anecdotes of otherwise healthy pets coming down with a raft of symptoms, everything from a hacking cough to sometimes life-threatening complications. Most concerning, veterinarians say they’re unable to identify what’s making the dogs ill and the go-to treatments for canine respiratory illness, generally called “kennel cough,” appear to be ineffective.

Veterinarians Aren’t Panicking

Veterinarians who study infectious diseases say that this may be a case where there is not a singular outbreak of illness at all. Because the U.S. doesn’t have a robust surveillance system for infectious diseases in dogs, it’s hard to track these cases and discern whether anecdotes and scraps of data add up to widespread and concerning patterns. “Two things keep getting mixed up,” says Dr. Scott Weese, an infectious disease veterinarian at the Ontario Veterinary College. “Do we have more disease? And do we have something new? Because those are not necessarily connected.”

Weese says it seems that certain parts of the country are experiencing an uptick in canine respiratory illness. However, it’s possible the deluge of media coverage and attention on social media has created the appearance of a nationwide outbreak that may not exist in reality.

Reasons for Increased Respiratory Illness

Respiratory disease in dogs wax and wane, and the last few years have seen more “dramatic swings” where outbreaks last longer and take place across broader areas, says Dr. Weese. The epidemiology around this illness is especially hazy because there’s already some mix of the usual suspects, like Bordetella and canine respiratory coronavirus (not related to COVID-19), with outbreaks of canine flu layered on top of that.

The uptick in illness doesn’t happen in a vacuum, either: Dog ownership in the U. S has gone up steadily, vaccinations have been disrupted in recent years, and the holiday season has led more people to board their dogs or bring them on travel and mingle them with other pets.

New Pathogen or Pathogen Soup?

Despite all the attention on individual cases, there’s nothing at this point “that would indicate there’s a national outbreak, anything that would indicate these are all medically connected to each other,” says Dr. Silene St. Bernard, a regional medical director for VCA Animal Hospitals.

However, pathologists are keeping an open mind as they collect samples from sick dogs and search for clues. “I do trust veterinarians,” says Dr. Kurt Williams, who directs the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, “If they say we are seeing increased numbers of cases and they’re behaving clinically differently than we’re used to, we need to pay attention.”

Dr. Jane Sykes, a professor at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine who focuses on infectious disease believes there could be one of the many possibilities in play, with one of them being a “pathogen soup,” essentially a mixture of co-occurring infections that are making dogs especially sick and prolonging their recovery.

Common-Sense Measures for Dog Owners

Veterinarians advise pet owners to take common-sense measures, like avoiding contact with sick dogs and making sure your dog is up to date on its vaccine. Some people may want to steer clear of “high traffic” public places like dog parks and, if possible, boarding facilities, groomers and other crowded locations.

It’s important that pet owners don’t avoid routine health care for their pets in fear of the respiratory illness. If your pet gets sick, get them seen immediately by a veterinarian.

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