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What We Know About the ‘Mystery’ Dog Illness

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Dogs in parts of North America have been catching what’s being called a “mysterious respiratory illness.” According to many terrifying reports, veterinarians have been unable to identify the cause and standard treatments don’t seem to help. In a few cases, dogs have died.

So far the mystery illness is not suspected to be in New York, but some city dog owners are spooked anyway. Friends tell me their neighborhood dog runs have been less crowded than normal, and in my own building, neighbors are observing a one-dog-at-a-time policy on the elevator.

As the owner of an extremely gross beagle who will sniff almost anything, even if it’s hazardous to his health and especially if it came out of another dog, I wanted to know how concerned I should be. So I called up veterinary experts and grilled them with paranoid questions. Here is what they told me. The takeaway: They’re not panicking and don’t think you should be either.

What are the symptoms of the “mystery illness”?

According to vets and owners of sick dogs, the so-called mystery illness presents like Bordetella, canine parainfluenza, or a variety of other similar common respiratory infections frequently filed together under the catch-all label “kennel cough.” Symptoms include coughing, sneezing, runny nose and eyes, fever, lethargy, and loss of appetite. Most cases clear up within a couple of weeks, but some can last longer. A few infected animals have developed pneumonia. In rare cases, dogs have died.

That might sound scary, but “that’s what we see all the time with kennel cough,” says Dr. Scott Weese, an infectious-disease veterinarian at the Ontario Veterinary College. “The vast majority of dogs will have a mild case, and a small percentage will have a prolonged cough, and a smaller percentage will develop complications like pneumonia, similar to people with that type of disease.”

How widespread is it?

So far, suspected outbreaks have been reported in California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington — but that list may not necessarily mean much. “If you say it’s 14 states that are affected,” says Weese, “that just means that someone in those states said, ‘Yeah, we got it here.’ But then you might ask them, ‘Do you see respiratory disease in dogs normally?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Do you see kennel cough?’ ‘Oh yeah, we see it all the time.’ ‘Why is this different?’ ‘I don’t know, because someone’s calling it something different.’ That’s essentially where we are right now.”

So how do we know this isn’t just kennel cough?

That’s the big question. Veterinarians still aren’t sure if we’re seeing the emergence of a new illness or just something familiar going around in greater numbers. They also don’t know if the various regional outbreaks all involve the same disease.

Vets have reported that testing infected dogs for known viruses and bacteria has failed to identify a culprit, which in our post-COVID world has stoked worries of a novel pathogen. But there are other possible explanations for the negative tests. For example, by the time a dog is sick enough to visit the vet, they’ve often stopped shedding the pathogen that caused their illness. “If we don’t test the dog right when they start to get sick,” says Weese, “we’re often going to get negative results.” Also, not every owner will pay for a PCR panel to diagnose their pet’s respiratory ailment — and not every vet will recommend one — since having a diagnosis usually doesn’t affect the treatment.

Weese says we’re seeing increases in canine respiratory disease in some parts of North America, but suspects that normal viruses and bacteria are to blame. “When you look at the insurance claims, you see 30, 50, or 60 percent increases. But I think social media has really amplified the concern. When you have more cases total, you’re going to have more severe cases. But the numbers don’t indicate a new virus that’s moving through the population and killing lots of dogs.”

So why are more dogs getting sick overall? Isn’t that a reason to worry?

On his blog, Worms & Germs, Weese notes that over the past few years, there’s been an increase in dog ownership and vaccinations and other veterinary care have been disrupted by the pandemic. These factors have probably resulted in more dogs with lower levels of protection against commonly circulating respiratory illnesses.

Thus, rather than one pathogen, “it’s more likely that there are a few different things going on,” says Colin Parrish, a virologist at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine who specializes in canine influenza. “Some of them may be connected, but others are probably due to other diseases. With the viral story spreading, though, everyone’s lumping any coughing dog into the same category of mystery disease.”

So it sounds like this might not be a new illness after all.

Well, anything is possible. Earlier this year, researchers at the New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Lab said they were investigating a potentially novel bacterium called IOLA KY405 as a possible cause of respiratory illness in dogs, but there’s still no evidence that it’s driving any of the current outbreaks or even that it’s capable of making dogs sick. “So far, all they could say is that they found it in some sick dogs — but are we seeing it in healthy dogs, too?” says Weese. “Since they started looking into it, it’s been reported only once by the same lab, which would suggest that it’s probably not a big player. We have thousands and thousands of bacteria that live on us and in us, and it’s probably just one of them.”

“If this were all caused by one virus or bacterium,” says Parrish, “even one that we didn’t know about, the methods for pathogen discovery are so well developed now — using what we call deep sequencing or metagenomic sequencing analysis — I think it would have been discovered.”

The mystery illness isn’t COVID, is it?

“No,” says Weese. “We know that dogs can be infected with COVID, and we know it’s actually not that uncommon, but rarely does it cause respiratory disease in dogs. Even the newer variants haven’t changed enough such that we would expect a change in species’ susceptibility. And like Colin said, the pan-viral work would really easily pick up SARS-CoV-2, and we’ve seen nothing to suggest that.”

Can humans catch this?

“The chances are very little,” says Weese. “We can’t say zero, but very little. There can be dog-to-human transmission of Bordetella, but it’s really rare. With canine flu, the risk is very, very low. With flu, you never say never, because flu is going to do weird things. But with most canine respiratory diseases, the risk is going to be very low.”

Can it be treated?

Much is being made of reports that the mystery illness (or illnesses) hasn’t responded to commonly prescribed antibiotics. But that’s not too surprising, since neither do most dog respiratory diseases. “Most canine respiratory illnesses are viral,” says veterinarian Dr. Tracy Akner. “So chances are an antibiotic is not going to help.”

And even if it is a bacterial illness, that’s relatively hard to treat, too, says Parrish. “If you have bacteria on a respiratory surface like in the trachea or the lungs, it’s hard to get an antibiotic in there.”

Owners of dogs with kennel cough often ask their vets to prescribe antibiotics anyway, but vets say this can be counterproductive. “A lot of the antibiotic resistance we have now is because of overuse,” says Akner. “So many dogs that have kennel cough are given antibiotics and they do get better, but they actually would’ve gotten better on their own.”

Where antibiotics become necessary is when a dog develops pneumonia. “When an illness has moved from a dog’s upper respiratory tract down into their lungs, and they have difficulty breathing, that’s when we consider antibiotics,” says Weese. “But that’s a pretty small subset of the cases overall.”

On Good Morning America last week, a California family credited a powerful antibiotic called chloramphenicol for saving their golden retriever, whose suspected mystery illness had developed into pneumonia. But the vets I spoke to warned against drawing conclusions from one case and said that chloramphenicol has more side effects than common drugs like doxycycline. “If we put all coughing dogs on chloramphenicol, we’d harm more than we would help compared to our normal drugs,” says Weese.

Is the mystery illness in New York?

It doesn’t seem to be. “It’s absolutely not something I’ve seen,” says Akner, whose practice is in Murray Hill. Same goes for Dr. Monica Murphy, a vet who works in Park Slope. “I had a nice long shift today and only got asked about it once, and it was just a by-the-way kind of thing, not someone who brought their dog in specifically worried about it.”

But will it eventually spread everywhere?

Probably not. “Respiratory diseases that require dog-to-dog contact don’t spread very quickly, so outbreaks tend to be localized,” says Parrish. “Dogs aren’t like humans. At any one time there are half a million people in the air flying over the United States, but there’s really only a handful of dogs doing the same thing. And once those dogs arrive at their destinations, they almost never go straight into a big mixed social situation. So the transmission is different.”

When should I be worried about my dog’s symptoms?

“As long as your dog’s attitude and appetite are intact, and they’re not having trouble breathing, then there’s not an urgency,” says New York veterinarian Dr. Monica Murphy. “You might not even need a vet visit, even if they’re coughing a little or have a runny nose.” For most mild symptoms, “keep your dog warm, fed, and hydrated and maybe expose them to a little shower steam. Most of them are going to feel better without any further intervention than that.”

Which dogs are most at risk?

“If you have a healthy dog that’s in good shape, they almost always come out of it with no long-term consequences,” says Parrish. “As with humans and COVID, it’s the patients that have other comorbidities that should take extra precautions.” Dogs that are elderly, very young, pregnant, immunocompromised, or have underlying heart or respiratory problems are probably most vulnerable. Also, respiratory diseases can be more severe in flat-faced dog breeds whose airways are naturally more compressed — like, for example, the French bulldog, which became the most popular dog in the U.S. last year.

What precautions can you take for a healthy dog?

If possible, try to limit your dog’s contact with unknown dogs, especially large groups of them. Canine respiratory illnesses tend to spread fastest in places like kennels, shelters, day cares, and dog runs. “With respiratory diseases, it’s coughing, sneezing, and snot,” says Murphy. “We’re mainly worried about dogs socializing with other random dogs where they’re sharing air and there’s the potential for direct and indirect droplet contact.”

Vets also recommend having your dog vaccinated for Bordetella, canine parainfluenza, canine influenza, and canine adenovirus type 2. “Those are all safe, relatively effective, and not too expensive — they’re cheap insurance,” says Parrish.

Can my dog catch it outside? Does this mean we should stay out of dog runs for now?

“An off-leash dog park where the dog can run around and lick the faces of ten other random dogs is going to be a high-risk activity,” says Weese. “But walking down the street past another dog with direct contact, the risk is basically zero.”

I’m definitely not saying my dog would ever do this — but just hypothetically, could a dog catch the mystery illness by sniffing, licking, or eating poo?

“Without knowing exactly what the pathogen is, the best guidance we have is to look at how other respiratory diseases are transmitted,” says Akner. “There are illnesses like parvo and giardia, which pass by fecal-oral transmission, meaning dogs get them by licking poop or poop residue. But those cause GI symptoms, whereas this is a respiratory illness and respiratory illnesses tend not to be very hardy in the environment.”

“The risk from fecal exposure is probably very low,” says Weese. “I’m not going to say it’s zero, but I’m going to say it’s pretty low. If you can reduce the activity, that’s great — but I wouldn’t panic if my dog did it.”

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