A mysterious respiratory illness is rapidly spreading among dogs across more than 15 states, putting dog owners and veterinarians on high alert. The illness, whose cause remains unknown, has similarities to kennel cough but can progresses into fatal pneumonia if untreated.
Illness Quickly Spreads, Confounding Vets
The respiratory illness first garnered attention in August 2022 when a cluster of cases emerged at a dog day care facility in Otsego County, Michigan. Since then, the disease has continued cropping up, with over 100 suspected cases now reported across 15 states including California, Illinois, Michigan, Tennessee, and Texas among others.
The onset is typically acute, with dogs developing a harsh cough, gagging or retching, loss of appetite, lethargy, and fever. Symptoms can progress rapidly from what appears to be kennel cough into life-threatening pneumonia in a matter of days. A number of dogs have died from the illness already.
Dr. Rena Carlson, a veterinarian and researcher investigating the outbreak at Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, noted to CNN: “It was making dogs really sick, really fast. Some were dying even after treatment.”
The outbreak comes on the heels of canine influenza surges nationwide, but disease testing has ruled out known pathogens like flu, distemper, adenovirus and other common causes of infectious respiratory disease. The underlying cause remains wholly unknown, confounding vets and researchers.
Carlson elaborated: “It looked like kennel cough the first couple days, but it rapidly progressed to severe pneumonia by day three or four. Even on medication, even with supportive care like oxygen, many still died.”
For now, vets are dubbing the disease simply “canine pneumonia of unknown cause.”
Vets and Owners Urged to Take Precautions
With cases accumulating and little knowledge of how the illness spreads, vets nationwide are urging dog owners and facilities to take precautions.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) released an advisory this week recommending boarding facilities closely monitor dogs for respiratory symptoms and separate symptomatic dogs. Owners are advised to avoid taking dogs to facilities with active outbreaks and limit contact with unfamiliar dogs when out on walks.
Regular vaccination against known pathogens like kennel cough remains crucial. Routine handwashing for facility staff is also advised along with thorough facility disinfection protocols. Some facilities with outbreaks have also temporarily halted new dog intakes.
For owners of symptomatic dogs, close collaboration with a vet is essential as the disease can become life-threatening in just days without proper treatment. Dogs presenting with fever, cough, gagging, vomiting or other signs of respiratory distress should see a vet immediately.
Clues Emerge But Questions Remain
Investigations by state health departments and academic institutions are ongoing, trying to pin down the underlying cause. Dr. Nathan Slovis, director of MSU’s veterinary diagnostic laboratory, noted that recent testing of lung samples from afflicted dogs has turned up evidence of Streptococcus equi zooepidemicus – a bacteria sometimes associated with kennel cough but not usually known to trigger such severe illness on its own.
However, Slovis emphasized the findings are preliminary: “We haven’t ruled everything out yet. There’s still more detective work to do.”
Carlson concurred, telling CNN: “There had to have been some sort of virus initially because its spreading like wildfire. But now that it has spread to many dogs, the bacteria is probably perpetuating it.”
Research efforts are now focused on identifying an underlying viral or environmental trigger that may have set the stage for bacterial superinfection and pneumonia. Diagnostic labs at MSU, the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, and the New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Lab are actively investigating samples from afflicted dogs.
To the relief of some owners, there is no evidence the illness can cross from dogs to humans or other pets. But major questions persist over transmission routes, risk factors, underlying viral triggers, and best practices for clinical management.
Carlson summed up the prevailing uncertainty: “We’re still really in the thick of the investigation – it’s scary for owners, it’s scary for vets. But hopefully our unified effort helps us get more answers soon.”
Outbreaks Subside But Expected to Reemerge
For the time being, the outbreak appears to be stabilizing in most regions as facilities respond with heightened precautions. Some locations that saw initial clusters, like the FIRSTLINE Therapy Canine Rehabilitation facility in Redondo Beach, have reported no new cases in over a week.
However, experts believe periodic resurgences over the coming months are likely until the root cause is determined and targeted diagnostics or therapeutics can be developed.
The MSU College of Veterinary Medicine released a statement this week advising veterinary practices to remain vigilant and take a thorough respiratory history for any dog newly exhibiting cough or difficulty breathing.
Carlson concurred, stating: “This is unlikely the end. We expect this to keep spreading periodically. The silver lining is collaborative efforts on this might help us detect viruses faster in the future. But no one should relax just yet.”
For the latest updates on the outbreak in your region, contact your state veterinarian’s office or nearest veterinary college. State and national advisories will be issued as further diagnostic and epidemiologic insights emerge.
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