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‘Mystery’ illness in dogs not necessarily cause for alarm, vets say

There is talk of a respiratory illness spreading in dogs throughout the U.S., but local veterinarians are urging pet owners not to panic

Dog owners are in a frenzy after talk of a “mystery illness” spreading in the United States, but local experts are urging people not to panic. 

Major news organizations across North America are warning of a “mystery respiratory illness” that has been spreading throughout the U.S. over the last few months. But Dr. Scott Weese, a Guelph veterinarian and professor at the Ontario Veterinary College and a leading expert on infectious disease, isn’t so sure there is a new disease on the rise, or even a major outbreak. 

So what exactly is going on? 

Reports tell of dogs developing coughing symptoms that last longer than usual, from weeks to months. Secondary infections aren’t always responding to typical treatments. Some dogs have developed pneumonia, and some have died. 

“The issue is, that largely describes our normal state,” Weese said in a blog post published earlier this week. 

Respiratory disease is endemic in dogs and has various known causes. It’s something veterinarians see regularly, but that usually flies under the radar. 

In fact, Weese gets emails asking whether there is more, or a more severe spread, of respiratory disease in dogs every year. 

“To me, that reflects that there’s always circulation… and that we notice it more at times.” 

In an interview, he compared it to cold and flu season. 

“You have no idea how many people are sick with a cold in Guelph. Lots of people are. But then people start talking about it all of a sudden, you realize all the people that are sick, and you can overreact to that,” he said. 

This is especially true because like the common cold, respiratory disease in dogs is not typically tested. Something like kennel cough, for instance, usually goes away on its own in a week or two, only sometimes needing a cough suppressant or antibiotics. 

For example, if 100 dogs in Guelph had kennel cough right now, there is no way to tell whether that number is high or low. 

“That's a problem when we're trying to assess situations like this, we don't really have a baseline to compare to,” he said.

The severity isn’t necessarily a huge cause for alarm, either: he said it’s typical a small percentage of dogs will get very ill or die from a respiratory disease if they are at risk. Higher risk dogs include older dogs, dogs already sick or with pre-existing conditions, and “smushy-faced” breeds. 

Dogs who regularly socialize with strange dogs, like at the dog park, would also be more at risk than those who don't, he said. 

At this point though, Weese said “we don’t know whether anything is going on at all. All we know is there are more people talking about respiratory disease in dogs, but we don’t know if we’re actually seeing a lot more cases.”

So the question is, are we seeing an increase in respiratory disease, something new entirely, or is it that media and social media have created an outbreak, simply by taking note of something that normally goes unnoticed?

Right now, Weese suspects there has either been a slight increase in the baseline disease, which he has noticed in recent years, or that normal disease activity is being given more attention. 

The Highway 24 Vet Clinic shared similar sentiments in an email sent to clients earlier this week, emphasizing that the illness is being dubbed a mystery only because “a single common pathogen has not been identified that links all of these cases together.”

"Just as in people, viruses can change (mutate) and bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics - which is why it's so critical to use antibiotics correctly," the clinic said. 

“Here at Highway 24 Vet Clinic we often see coughing dogs, but have not yet seen cases of severe respiratory disease like this,” the email states. “Experts are working hard to determine if there is in fact a brand new pathogen out there, but the likelihood is that these are issues related to the same viruses and bacteria that we already know about.”

Still, Dr. Lucas Yuricek, a veterinarian with the clinic, said they’ve been hearing from a lot of concerned clients over the last few days, and want to make sure they’re listening to those concerns without causing alarm. 

“One of the challenges we have as vets is having the right balance between education, information without fear mongering,” he said.

It makes sense that people would be worried about a mysterious respiratory illness, after experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, but that "right now, while a lot of people are talking about it, there isn't anything that is that different compared to other years where similar things have happened." 

“So we continue to have our usual level of prudence and concern, but nothing that would put us into a panic," he said. 

While you don't need to keep your dog locked indoors to avoid exposure, both Weese and Yuricek agree there is no harm in taking extra precautions, like avoiding dog parks for the time being.

Yuricek said a vaccine for the most common respiratory illnesses, while not mandatory, is also an option. 

“If a dog is sick, keep it at home. Keep your dog away from visibly sick dogs. Try to limit the number of dogs your dog encounters,” Weese said. 

Ultimately, he said right now “we’ve got  an upper respiratory tract infection or kennel cough that we’re wondering whether it’s occurring more often as opposed to some new mystery like COVID that’s going to come in and markedly change things.”

However, neither Weese nor Yuricek are dismissing that something is going on, there is just not enough data to say whether it's worth panicking about. 

“In the age of media, things spread fast and it takes time for the facts to catch up sometimes,” Yuricek said.