Scientists are searching for the cause of a mysterious canine respiratory disease, and veterinarians are rushing to treat it

Veterinarians across the country are providing intensive care as the number of dogs suffering from severe respiratory illness continues to rise. At the same time, scientists are trying to figure out what caused the current outbreak, how widespread it is and how many healthy cubs have become seriously ill or died.

Maple was a happy, healthy 7-month-old Australian Shepherd until last Saturday, when she started coughing. Her owner, Adrianna Defenderfer of Fontana, California, panicked when the puppy’s cough quickly progressed, keeping Defenderfer awake all night.

“I was holding her, trying to comfort her as much as I could,” Diffenderfer, 23, said. “I could tell she was scared too.”

At the vet the next morning, the young dog was tested for various respiratory ailments, all of which ultimately came back negative.

“The vet called me and he said, basically there’s no definitive evidence of this disease yet, we don’t know what’s causing it,” Diffenderfer said.

Maple was treated for bronchitis, given a nebulizer and a steroid shot, and had secretions removed from her lungs. She was sent home with two different antibiotics.

Maple, a 7-month-old Australian shepherd, is recovering from severe respiratory illness.Courtesy Adriana Defenderfer

Respiratory infections in dogs, especially canine distemper, are common, often causing outbreaks in shelters and doggy daycares. The current outbreak has been spreading across parts of the United States and Canada for the past year. The outbreak is different from garden-variety respiratory disease, experts say, because a large number of cases lead to pneumonia.

In Colorado, compared to the same months in 2022, there was a 50% increase in canine pneumonia cases this year between September and November, said infectious disease specialist Dr. Michael Lappin, director of the Companion Animal Research Center at Colorado State. University School of Veterinary Medicine. According to pet insurance company Trupanion, claims data suggest that the number of dogs suffering from acute respiratory illness is increasing in many states.

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Many dogs can become seriously ill because they are infected with multiple pathogens at once — including canine influenza, Bordetella (kennel cough) and mycoplasma pneumonia — said Dr. Deborah Silverstein, chief of emergency medicine and critical care at Ryan. Veterinary Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania—like the trifecta of Covid-19, influenza, and RSV that hit people last fall and winter.

Is this a new bug?

There can be many reasons for the rise. Many dogs may be less resistant to infections because pandemic-era restrictions kept them away from day care or boarding facilities, and experts note that they are not exposed to viruses or bacteria. A decrease in vaccination rates for dogs has also been reported. A recent study Half of dog owners are reluctant to vaccinate their pets.

“We’ve got dogs with low levels of immunity because they’ve been exposed less in the last couple of years and they’ve had less vaccinations.” Dr. Scott Weiss, an infectious disease veterinarian at the Ontario College of Veterinary Medicine, said during an online conference Thursday. “So with our normal respiratory disease that’s always there and always around, we’re going to see more disease and more spikes.”

Silverstein says that any one of these factors can increase the incidence of the disease, which can lead to the death of some dogs.

“Some error may have changed in its severity,” Silverstein said. “Covid strains can be mild or severe.”

Still, there is a chance that a new bacteria may be circulating.

Scientists at University of New Hampshire Recently a novel bacteria has been identified as a possible culprit. The findings are based on a small number of cases from the New England states, so the results need to be confirmed in a larger and geographically diverse sample of dogs.

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Researchers from other centers, including Oregon State University, Colorado State University and the University of Pennsylvania, are also trying to identify the cause of the outbreak.

A big factor slowing down research in the United States is that there is no single group to monitor pet diseases. For example, scientists at CSU are coordinating with the state veterinarian’s office, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other researchers to gain more insight into what’s happening in Colorado.

Another barrier is that many owners cannot afford to take a sick dog to a veterinary clinic or specialty center or pay for diagnostic testing. In fact, the cost of treatment for sick dogs $15,000 to $20,000, said Steve Weinrach, Trupanion’s chief livestock product officer.

Which dogs are most at risk?

In general, brachycephalic or flat-faced dog breeds such as French bulldogs or pugs, senior dogs, or dogs with lung disease are at higher risk of developing pneumonia from a respiratory infection.

But at the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Kate Eicher treated young dogs vaccinated in March and April of this year for a variety of canine respiratory diseases. What Eicher and his colleagues saw was sudden fever and widespread severity.

“Dogs that are 1 and 2 years old are in good shape and healthy, and you don’t expect them to get such severe pneumonia that they have to be put on a ventilator and die,” Eicher said. “You don’t expect dogs to die despite aggressive care.”

About 75% of the dogs at Texas A&M tested positive for the known pathogen. But 25% of tests show nothing, Eicher said.

Then, for Eicher, it all suddenly became personal.

Her 2-year-old Labrador retriever developed a high fever and a bothersome cough. Eicher’s dog was hospitalized and, fortunately, recovered through treatment. The pup is now back home “acting like his normal lab.”

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Unfortunately, a dog of the same age and breed that came to the hospital for treatment was unsuccessful, he said.

While on a walk, Eicher recalled that his dog made some subtle noises and coughed once.

“In retrospect, those were probably the first symptoms and didn’t set off any alarm bells,” he said.

This underscores the importance of owners getting to know their dogs and when things don’t seem right.

Symptoms of a respiratory infection in dogs include:

  • Cough.
  • sneeze
  • Red, runny eyes.

Many dogs will recover on their own. But if the dog has trouble breathing or stops eating, it could be a more serious problem and the dog should be taken to the vet.

With all the attention an undiagnosed disease gets in the news, especially on social media, Dr. Cinda Crawford, chief of shelter medicine at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, worries that owners will panic when it’s not there yet. Overall there seem to be many cases.

Still, “veterinarians working on the front lines in private practice see a large number of dogs with respiratory disease, and some of those dogs progress to pneumonia,” Crawford said. “They report that dogs do not respond as quickly or as quickly to normal standard care.”

Meanwhile, Maple, the Australian shepherd, appears to be improving and needs another chest X-ray to make sure the antibiotics are working.

“She can sleep through the night, she can sleep,” Diffenderfer said. “We can practice a little.”

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