What is the mysterious respiratory illness affecting dogs in the US?

Veterinarians explain how concerned you need to be about the so-called kennel cough, especially during the holiday season

Many dogs across the US have been recently contracting a respiratory illness, causing worry among pet owners. But veterinarians say that this may not be the cause for panic that it seems.

The so-called kennel cough, which includes signs such as coughing, runny nose, sneezing, lethargy and loss of appetite, has attracted significant attention on social media, prompting news organizations to cover the illness in spite of uncertainty about whether there is in fact a unique, concerning trend.

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Veterinarians say that despite the appearance in the recent increase of cases of respiratory illness in dogs, it’s hard to measure because there is no central surveillance system to track disease outbreaks for animals. They implore dog owners, some of whom are unsettled about social media posts concerning the disease, to remember that this is not necessarily an unusual problem or reason to panic.

“There are respiratory diseases outbreaks around the country every year, and it’s not something that we are necessarily surprised about,” said Dr Brian Collins, a veterinarian with the Cornell Richard P Riney canine health center in Ithaca, New York. “We don’t want dogs to be unnecessarily isolated from each other if there’s not a reason for concern.”

While that advice may be salient, seeing the illness has still been very difficult for some dog owners.

Take Renee Jameson, a home health nurse and hypnotherapist, and her husband, Dan, who have always had dogs. Jameson says she loves having canines for their “unconditional love”.

That attachment, of course, comes with grief when the pet dies. Jameson’s voice cracked when she explained that it’s still hard for her to talk about Satchmo, a mixed-breed dog who became sick in June and had about three days to live, their veterinarian told them.

Before she had even put the dog down, Jameson started to scroll through a list of dogs on an animal shelter’s website. She was struck by the image of a dog who had only lived on the streets. She and Dan adopted the dog a day after Satchmo died and named him Louie – as in the trumpeter Louis Armstrong (whose nickname was Satchmo).

Then, Louie became sick in October. The couple, who at the time had four dogs, became scared about possibly losing another one so soon after Satchmo. Louie, who had been at a bar with other dogs just a week earlier, had a respiratory disease and was having difficulty breathing. Shortly after Louie showed symptoms, another of their dogs became sick too.

Louie’s veterinarian prescribed him, and the Jamesons’ other dogs, antibiotics. The vet said if Louie didn’t get better within a couple days, they should take him to an emergency room. Jameson said the diagnosis prevented her from sleeping, but ultimately Louie’s health improved and the other dogs did not become sick.

When Louie started “to show an interest in things and actually nuzzling us, that’s when we knew he was going to be OK”, Jameson added.

Dr Scott Weese, a veterinarian who specializes in infectious disease at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph in Canada, said there has been a gradual increase in respiratory diseases among dogs in the last few years.

“When you have got a baseline that has been sneaking up, it makes the peaks a little more noticeable,” Weese said.

But veterinarians don’t know the exact size of the increase because there isn’t a national database, and, Weese said, many owners of dogs who become ill with respiratory problems don’t take the animals to veterinarians, who could test the dogs.

Trupanion, a pet insurance company, reported that there has been an increase in respiratory-related claims this year as compared with last year. In Ontario, for example, there has been a 70% increase, according to the company.

Still, that just refers to a fraction of the small percentage of dogs that are insured.

Veterinarians say that, despite the lack of data, pet owners are growing more and more concerned about their pets becoming sick because of information circulating on social media.

Dr Jane Sykes, a professor at the University of California, Davis’s school of veterinary medicine who focuses on infectious diseases, said this could qualify as what the World Health Organization calls an “infodemic”, which refers to “too much information including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak”.

Sykes has spoken with veterinarians who say they are seeing respiratory illnesses in dogs that appear to last longer than usual. She theorizes that the possible spike in cases is actually the result of more people getting dogs in recent years. Also, it’s travel season – when more people are boarding dogs – so there is more interaction among the animals.

Collins added that pet owners should turn to their veterinarian if they have questions, rather than relying on anecdotal information, and ensure their dogs are vaccinated.

If dogs have other illnesses that predispose them to getting sick, owners should perhaps avoid taking them to dog parks and other places with lots of canines, Collins said.

“Many dogs benefit from socializing with other dogs so we don’t want to advise against that unless there seems to be a problem in that particular geographic area,” Collins said. “If there are concerns, a smaller social group may be a good compromise.”