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Caution Urged as New Dog Illness Emerges in Wisconsin

Our dogs are not just pets; they’re loyal companions, family members, and sources of unconditional love and joy. In the shadow of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, any unknown disease, such as atypical canine respiratory disease, is understandably a cause for concern. Let’s explore the symptoms, preventive measures, and what to expect if your dog becomes sick.

What is the new respiratory illness?

Recently, veterinarians in Wisconsin and other states have seen increased respiratory symptoms in dogs. This illness, still under investigation but known as atypical canine respiratory disease, is characterized by coughing, which may be mild and self-limiting. However, it has the potential to cause serious diseases, such as pneumonia, and, in some cases, death. Unlike other common respiratory infections in dogs, this illness has a longer course and is not as responsive to typical treatments, such as antibiotics. It has affected dogs of all ages across the country.

It was initially noted in late June 2023 in New Hampshire and has since been found in numerous states, including Wisconsin, since October. The exact numbers are unknown but were estimated to be in the thousands nationwide as of last month; nor is the exact cause of the infection known — for example, whether it is an existing virus or bacteria behaving differently or something completely new.

Despite the media hype and many unknowns surrounding this respiratory condition, pet owners can be reassured by the following: While the morbidity rate (how many dogs are getting sick from the disease) is reported as high, the mortality rate (how many dogs are dying from the disease) is comparatively low. When dogs do develop symptoms, they can range from mild to severe. And while there have been reports of deaths, particularly in dogs who develop severe pneumonia, these cases are relatively rare.

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Why is my dog coughing?

There are many potential causes of coughing in dogs, ranging from simple and easily treatable things such as allergies to more serious medical conditions like heart disease, kennel cough, and this new respiratory illness. Symptoms to watch for include a chronic cough, decreased appetite, lethargy, fever, and changes in breathing rate and effort. If your dog shows these symptoms, consult your veterinarian immediately.

Symptoms of atypical canine respiratory disease

Early detection of this illness is crucial. Dog owners should be vigilant and monitor their pups for the following symptoms:

  • Persistent coughing. A cough that lasts for 4–8 weeks and does not respond to typical treatments.
  • Lethargy. Low energy level or fatigue.
  • Loss of appetite. Decreased interest in food or loss of appetite can occur in some cases.
  • Nose or eye discharge. Clear or colored discharge from nose and eyes.
  • Sneezing. Increased sneezing and/or reverse sneezing.
  • Development of pneumonia. Sometimes, the illness may progress to pneumonia, a severe lung infection.
  • Sudden onset of respiratory distress. Acute difficulty breathing, wheezing, collapse, and a blue tinge to the tongue.

Is this different from kennel cough?

Kennel cough, also known as Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease (CIRD) or infectious tracheobronchitis, is a common and highly contagious respiratory disease affecting dogs. Various viral and bacterial pathogens cause it, the most common being Bordetella bronchiseptica and parainfluenza, and leads to a hacking, honking cough, often followed by gagging or retching.

Kennel cough is frequently spread in places where dogs gather, such as dog parks, daycare, and boarding or grooming facilities. In addition to a cough, dogs may also show symptoms of sneezing, runny nose, and eye discharge. The condition is generally mild but, in some cases, can lead to more severe disease, such as pneumonia.

Treatment for kennel cough often involves rest, isolation from other dogs to prevent spreading, and, in some cases, antibiotics and cough suppressants. Most dogs recover fully with proper care, and vaccines are also available to help prevent and lessen the severity of kennel cough.

This mystery respiratory illness was initially thought to be kennel cough. But while it may be a component of the same respiratory disease complex, it behaves differently. Instead of responding to typical antibiotics such as doxycycline, the coughing persists for 6–8 weeks. In some cases, it leads to pneumonia, respiratory distress, and rarely death.

Most of the infected dogs had contact with other dogs at doggy daycare or dog parks; however, there have also been some cases in dogs without known contact or exposure.

The risk of pneumonia in dogs

Pneumonia is a serious concern associated with this new mystery disease. While infected dogs initially show typical signs like coughing, illness can sometimes progress to pneumonia. This severe lung infection is associated with inflammation and fluid accumulation in the lungs, which can significantly affect the ability to breathe. Pneumonia can be due to primary or secondary infection. Early detection of respiratory disease is critical to help prevent this risk.

Diagnosis of respiratory disease in dogs

If you see your vet for concerns about coughing or respiratory disease in your dog, here is what you might expect:

  • Safety precautions. During COVID-19, many vet clinics added safety protocols to protect their clients and patients. To help decrease the spread of contagious illnesses, such as respiratory disease, your vet might conduct their exam outdoors or use separate entrances and exam rooms for coughing dogs. They may use personal protective equipment like gloves and masks. After each visit, the room and equipment will be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized.
  • Medical history. Your vet will first need to get a thorough medical history, including information about your dog's clinical signs, the duration and severity of the cough, vaccine status, and lifestyle and exposure risks.
  • Physical exam. A nose-to-tail physical exam will follow, where your vet will listen to your dog's heart and lungs and look for any other signs of illness or underlying conditions.
  • Diagnostic testing. Based on the medical history and exam findings, your vet may recommend diagnostic tests. This could include bloodwork to check for signs of infection or inflammation, chest X-rays to examine the lungs for pneumonia, and nasal or throat swabs to identify specific pathogens. In some cases, more advanced diagnostics might be needed. In mild cases or if finances are limited, your vet may opt for monitoring and supportive care and only pursue testing if your dog is not improving.

Treatment and care for a sick dog

The treatment of respiratory diseases in dogs can vary greatly. Mild cases are often managed with supportive care, including rest, isolation from other dogs, steam showers or humidifiers to help ease congestion, and ensuring your dog is well-hydrated and eats a high-quality, balanced diet.

Your vet will prescribe antibiotics if a bacterial infection is suspected or confirmed. Cough suppressants can also help provide relief from severe and persistent coughing.

Dogs experiencing significant respiratory distress may require hospitalization for oxygen therapy and more involved treatments, such as intravenous fluids, nebulization and coupage, continuous monitoring, additional medications, and advanced respiratory support.

Does pet insurance cover this treatment?

If you have pet insurance, your pet's respiratory disease may be covered. However, this will depend on your insurance policy and any pre-existing medical conditions your dog may have. It is best to contact your pet insurance for more details.

Prevention strategies

In addition to following your vet's recommendations, pet owners can do the following to help keep their pups safe:

  • Practice good hygiene. Regularly clean your dog's living space and belongings to help prevent the spread of disease. While this condition is not known to spread to people, it is always best to practice good hygiene, such as washing your hands after handling a sick pet.
  • Limit social interactions. If possible, avoid high-risk areas like dog parks, doggy daycare, and boarding facilities, where many unknown dogs are often present. Also, avoid the use of communal toys and water bowls.
  • Regular health check-ups. Always keep current on wellness veterinary care and vaccines. Your vet can determine which vaccines are necessary for your dog.
  • Keep sick dogs at home. If your dog shows any signs of illness (such as coughing, lethargy, decreased appetite, or discharge from their eyes or nose), keep them away from other dogs and contact your vet as soon as possible.

Ongoing research

Veterinarians and scientists are working hard to determine the cause of this mystery illness. Testing such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) may detect and identify specific pathogens contributing to disease. Another area of research involves understanding the epidemiology — how disease is transmitted from dog to dog, which populations of dogs are most at risk, and any potential environmental factors contributing to its spread. Additionally, work is being done to determine the most effective treatments.

In the spring of 2023, the New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Lab reported they were investigating a potentially new organism involved in this disease process. However, many experts don’t appear worried.

As Dr. Scott Weese, a professor at the University of Guelph Ontario Veterinary College and director of the university’s Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses, wrote in his blog, Worms and Germs, “If this bug turns out to be a pathogen in dogs, most likely it will be a 'new to us pathogen' versus a 'new pathogen' scenario. It’s more likely that it’s a longstanding cause of disease that we’ve never diagnosed before, versus a new bug that’s recently emerged and is starting to spread. The current disease patterns don’t really fit with the emergence of a new highly transmissible pathogen.”

Dr. Weese ended his most recent update on January 10th with this optimistic message, “Things seem to be waning, if not back to normal. Since we have no formal surveillance, we rely on various data sources, and none of them (for me, at least) suggest that we have something remarkable.”

If you have any insights or questions about this canine respiratory condition, we encourage you to share them.


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