Mysterious Dog Respiratory Illness: What We Know And How To Protect Your Canine Companions

Dog owners throughout the US are worried about their furry friend’s health after a new mysterious respiratory illness has begun making dogs sick. Here’s what we know about this new bacterial infection.

Embed from Getty Images

The mysterious respiratory illness that has been making dogs throughout the US sick is now thought to be a new type of bacterial infection that’s able to surpass the canine immune system, according to research from NBC

According to research from the University of New Hampshire’s Veterinary Diagnosis Laboratory, they may have identified a pathogen that could be making the dogs sick. 

Dr. David Needle, the pathology section chief at the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture at the University of New Hampshire, stated that samples from an initial group of 30 dogs who were infected last year showed a previously unknown germ.

“[The pathogen] is a funky bacterium. It’s smaller than a normal bacterium in its size and in the size of its genome. Long story short, it’s a weird bacterium that can be tough to find and sequence.”

“The germ is new as a potential cause of disease, but it is likely to be— or to have evolved from — a component of the dog microbiome. Dogs as well as humans have multiple types of harmless bacteria and other microorganisms living both inside and outside the body. In the gut, they are thought to aid in digestion,” he said. 

“After initial sequencing showed there were no known viral, bacterial or fungal pathogens, time consuming and dogged work by graduate student Lawrence Gordon showed that 21 of the initial 30 samples from New Hampshire had some genetic material from one atypical bacterial species,” Needle said. 

“The UNH team is sharing its results prior to publishing a research article, hoping they will give veterinarians some information as they deal with other respiratory syndrome outbreaks,” he said. Researchers also still aren’t sure if it’s the same bug that is making dogs sick throughout the US, and are trying to determine if it’s more of a viral or bacterial pathogen. 

“The Oregon Agriculture Department has received more than 200 case reports from veterinarians around the state since the beginning of August. A very small percentage of the dogs have died,” spokesperson for the department Andrea Cantu-Schomus said to NBC.

Embed from Getty Images

“Other states experiencing possible cases of this mysterious illness include Colorado, California, Indiana, Illinois, Washington, Idaho, Georgia, and Florida, with potential cases in North Carolina, Rhode Island and Virginia, as well.”

Embed from Getty Images

Experts explained that another difficulty with this illness is that there is no test for it, mainly because the symptoms are so similar to other canine respiratory infections like kennel cough and canine influenza. This also means that there’s likely a lot more cases of this illness than we think. 

“If it turns out that the New Hampshire researchers have found the right microbe, that may explain why some dogs are getting very sick. Smaller pathogens are likely to have an easier time making it past a dog’s defenses in the upper respiratory tract and getting down into the lungs. If it goes into the lungs, there’s a risk of pneumonia,” said Dr. Karl E. Jandrey, a professor of clinical small animal emergency and critical care at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, to NBC

“While the respiratory symptoms seem to be like a viral illness, testing has been negative for a virus,” Cantu-Schomus said. 

“It’s very unlikely that the cause will turn out to be viral. With the sequencing methods people use to look for unknown viruses, its signature would have been clear in a few days,” said Colin Parrish, a professor of virology at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University.

“So it’s possible that the New Hampshire scientists could have hit upon the right pathogen, although their results need to be confirmed by more research,” he said.

Experts in veterinary medicine are telling dog owners to keep their pets out of kennels, dog parks, and other crowded areas where a lot of other dogs are. If you need to take your dog to the vet or groomer, call ahead of time and see if they have any safety protocols in place. 

“When you congregate a bunch of animals together, there’s a larger likelihood of getting an infectious disease from other dogs. Still, there are some facilities where you are less likely to have a problem because of how they are designed,”  said Dr. Kurt Williams, director of the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at the Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine at Oregon State University.

“I’ve been telling people to work closely with their vet, and to make sure their dog has all the vaccines available, in particular those for respiratory diseases we are familiar with,” Williams said.

“Another option is for owners to hire a house sitter, or hire a dog walker. It might not be perfect, but it’s better than nothing. Also, you might want to consider having Thanksgiving at home,” Needle said. 

“Ultimately, your dog might be happier at home with a house sitter or a dog walker stopping by multiple times during the day than going to a kennel. It’s best to leave them in their own environment,” Jandrey said.