A mysterious respiratory illness is rapidly spreading among dogs across the United States, causing symptoms like coughing, vomiting and lethargy. Though researchers are still working to identify the exact cause, over 1,000 cases have been reported across dozens of states since the illness first emerged in August. With the holidays increasing travel and social activities for pets, officials are warning dog owners to take precautions.
Illness Bringing Severe and Sometimes Fatal Symptoms
The illness, which scientists believe to be highly contagious between dogs, generally causes coughing, vomiting, nasal discharge and lethargy. Symptoms arise within three days of exposure and illness lasts around 10 days. Most concerning is that some pets have died from the sickness.
“It’s acting like a new virus — one that they have not been exposed to before and one that their immune system doesn’t recognize and react against,” said Dr. Douglas Kratt of Abingdon Animal Clinic in Virginia, where dozens of cases have appeared.
The clinic has seen success treating dogs with antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and nebulizer treatments. But officials emphasize that prevention is most important, as the illness can escalate rapidly.
“It goes from zero to 60 in the span of 12 hours. In most respiratory infections, you have a progression — early stages look better than late stages. With this, in just half a day dogs go from looking happy and normal to being so sick they are in the hospital on oxygen,” Kratt said.
Virus Likely Spread Through Close Contact
The leading theory is that the respiratory illness is caused by a novel airborne virus that spreads through close interaction, like in kennels, dog parks or grooming facilities.
“It’s mostly affecting dogs that are in settings where they’re around a large concentration of other dogs. The illness itself is isolated to dogs, so people don’t need to worry about catching or transmitting this illness themselves,” said Colorado state veterinarian Maggie Baldwin.
Michelle Quinn took her dog Baxter to a kennel in Oak Creek, Wisconsin while out of town over Thanksgiving. When she returned, he had symptoms like reduced appetite, coughing and low energy. Her vet believes he likely picked up the mystery sickness at the kennel.
“He’s eating. He’s drinking. But he’s definitely not 100 percent normal Baxter,” Quinn told WISN. Like Quinn, many owners only realize their dog is sick when returning from holiday travel and group activities.
Dog Care Businesses Seeing Sharp Drops, Financial Strain
The spreading virus arrives alongside peak demand for pet care services over the holidays — but wary owners are now less inclined to use them, bringing financial hardship.
Christina Bramlage, owner of a dog grooming shop in Colorado Springs, decided to close her doors for at least 30 days after cases started appearing in the state.
“This time of year is usually incredibly busy for us. People travel and want their dogs cleaned up before Grandma’s house,” said Bramlage. Her business expects to lose around $30,000 due to the closure.
Other pet care companies are hurting too. Camp Bow Wow in Albuquerque says holiday bookings have plummeted nearly 80 percent compared to last year.
“People are calling in, canceling their reservations, canceling daycare because they don’t want to risk it,” owner Cody Lee told KOB4 News.
Researchers Racing to Pinpoint Exact Cause
The new sickness has been dubbed “canine infectious respiratory disease complex,” or CIRDC. Researchers across the country are working urgently to identify the precise root cause.
Early testing has ruled out common viruses like canine influenza as the primary culprit. The current belief is that a new mutation or variant is involved.
“It’s unlikely to be a single agent causing this,” Dr. Tony Goldberg, a University of Wisconsin professor studying the outbreak, told Science News. “It might be a shifting mix of pathogens — some old, some new.”
Research efforts have been hindered by understaffing at veterinary labs due to threats and harassment related to unfounded claims about pets spreading COVID-19. Still, scientists hope discovering the origin can lead to improved treatments and containment.
“There are a lot more questions than answers,” said state veterinarian Kevin Rack in Arizona. As many as 30 different pathogens could contribute to CIRDC — but pinpointing the main sources will enable targeted diagnostics and vaccines.
Advice to Owners: Limit Interactions, Monitor Symptoms
With investigations ongoing and no vaccine currently available, officials are urging vigilance. They advise avoiding situations that put dogs in close contact with others when possible. Also critical is knowing potential signs of illness and responding quickly if they emerge.
“Dog owners across the state should be on heightened alert,” said Rhode Island state veterinarian Scott Marshall. He recommends keeping dogs away from boarding, retail rescues, grooming salons, parks and shelters for the time being — especially if they will be left unattended or with caretakers unable to monitor closely.
If symptoms manifest after an interaction, Marshall advises immediately isolating dogs from other pets. Owners should get in touch with vets, who may wish to test for CIRDC if it’s suspected.
“What I’m most concerned about for the state of Rhode Island is that this continues to spread among dogs but we don’t quite know where it’s at or how many dogs it’s impacting,” said Marshall.
Looming Questions Around Spread Through Holidays
Veterinary experts across states like Pennsylvania, Nevada and Rhode Island are all anxiously wondering how holiday activities may accelerate circulation.
“We don’t know if this is going to get bigger as humans and dogs travel all over the country to visit family and friends or if it’s going to mellow out,” Alabama state veterinarian Dr. Tony Frazier told WBRC.
Some events have already been cancelled as a precaution, like Maine’s annual Pooch Parade held the week before Christmas.
“The more dogs who roam around other dogs, the better the chance this transmits. We gotta use good judgement,” warned organizer Lee Parker.
But many planned holiday gatherings will still bring substantial mingling of pets from different areas. It also remains unclear if the illness could spread at outdoor places hosting Christmas events, where interaction is lower.
Only time will tell whether festivities fan the flames of this dog disease — or if cases subside after peaking before the new year arrives.
“We’re not off pins and needles yet,” Quinn said of her dog Baxter’s situation in Wisconsin. She’s cautiously optimistic his health is moving in the right direction, but knows many owners nationally may not be so fortunate these coming weeks.
Table of Key Facts
|Believed to be novel airborne virus, not yet fully identified
|First emerged in August 2022
|Number of Cases
|Over 1,000 nationwide and rising quickly
|Coughing, vomiting, nasal discharge, lethargy
|Respiratory secretions through direct contact
|Dogs interacting closely in groups
|Avoid group settings, monitor health
|Supportive care, antibiotics, nebulization
|Ongoing investigations to pinpoint exact cause
The Road Ahead
As the holidays ramp up, markers are in place for significant additional spread of this concerning canine illness. Scientists are working urgently behind the scenes to solve the mystery through diagnostic testing and epidemiological tracking. But in the meantime, officials say vigilance and caution are the best tools pet owners have to protect their pup’s health.
Try to avoid unnecessary group activities and outings to higher-risk locations like kennels or daycares. Report any potential cases that arise to public health authorities. And monitor dogs closely for any early signs like lethargy or coughing that could indicate sickness. With care and collaboration, veterinarians hope this newly emerged virus can eventually be contained and treated effectively.
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