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Navigating the Mysterious Illness in Dogs, from a Vet’s Perspective

Published December 21, 2023
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By: Charlotte Frank, DVM

What Is It?

In light of recent media coverage, this article aims to inform pet parents about upper respiratory infections in dogs. For many years, the term “kennel cough” has been used to cover an array of pathogens leading to upper respiratory symptoms in dogs. The implication of the name is that only kenneled dogs are susceptible. The name therefore has in recent years been changed to Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex (aka CIRDC). The hope is that pet parents understand that ANY dog can pick up one of these pathogens.

CIRCD is made up of a half dozen or so pathogens. These include both viruses and bacteria. Upper respiratory infections are spread via respiratory droplets from an infected dog. Often, spread can occur from an infected dog BEFORE symptoms are present. These respiratory droplets can be picked up on a walk, at the park or beach, or even via a shared water bowl. Dogs in close quarters like a boarding, daycare, or grooming facility are at slightly higher risk, but they are not the only possible susceptible dogs.

What Can You Do?

Like the common cold in people, some dogs are more prone to contracting CIRDC than others. Most upper respiratory infections in dogs will cause only minor symptoms and may not require veterinary care. In some instances, a pneumonia can set in and become life threatening. The use of antibiotics is typically not recommended unless specifically indicated. Indications for the prescribing of antibiotics go beyond the expected cough, and include a fever, reduced appetite, lethargy, and/or trouble breathing. For this reason, it is recommended that any dog displaying the symptoms just described be assessed immediately. Hospitalization, IV fluid and antibiotic administration and oxygen supplementation may be needed.

Vaccines are available and commonly used against 5 of the pathogens in the CIRD Complex. These include Adenovirus, parainfluenza, Bordetella, and canine influenza (H3N2 and H3N8). Very likely, your pet has received the adenovirus and parainfluenza vaccines in both an injectable form (as part of the DA(H)PP vaccine AND the “trivalent” Bordetella). Vaccinating in two different forms gives the body the best protection possible. Vaccination remains the best way to protect our pets!

How To Help the Cause

The media has been reporting recently about a “mystery illness” in dogs and research is underway to identify the pathogen involved. It may be a mutation of a known pathogen or an emerging pathogen. Dogs affected with this new “atypical” upper respiratory infection seems to have a more persistent cough lasting 4-6 weeks or longer. They can develop symptoms of pneumonia acutely and treatment should be sought out IMMEDIATELY if any are observed.

The Universities performing the genome analysis are asking for as many samples to be collected as possible. For this reason, if your dog develops an upper respiratory infection that seems to require treatment, please ask your vet to perform the upper respiratory PCR test and the canine influenza test. Not only do these tests help guide treatment for your pet, but they are invaluable to the scientists currently working to identify the “mystery” illness.

Key Takeaways

In summary, prevention of upper respiratory infections lies with our current vaccines. The best way to avoid the spread of upper respiratory infections is to keep an infected dog at home. Seeking treatment for a dog with any symptoms of concern is recommended sooner rather than later. Finally, in the interest of solving the mystery, the respiratory pathogens testing is STRONGLY recommended.

As always, any questions about the health of your pup should be referred to your regular veterinarian as they are most familiar with your dog’s medical history.

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