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The Mysterious New Respiratory Dog Illness is Spreading. Here Are 7 Things to Know

What to do to protect your pups from getting sick and what to expect if they do

spinner image a veterinarian treating a dalmatian dog
LWA/Dann Tardif/Getty Images

​Like most people with fur babies at home, I am worried about the new dog respiratory illness that has been spreading across the U.S. — especially with the holidays approaching. Should we travel with our dogs to other states? What about leaving them with a boarder who may have a whole pack of dogs they are caring for? So I did what any good journalist does when they’re stressing over something: I spoke to the experts and wrote a story about it. 

What I found was that even the experts are scrambling for information. Researchers are trying to figure out whether the illness is viral or bacterial, while veterinarians are experimenting with treatments since the usual antibiotics aren’t working. 

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“There’s nothing that’s been proven up to this point of, oh, this is definitively what’s going on,” says Lindsey Ganzer, a veterinarian and the owner and CEO of North Springs Veterinary Referral Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, adding that many laboratories are working to get to the bottom of the problem. 

The good news: The veterinarian community across the U.S. is coming together around this, Ganzer says. Through the info they’ve shared, the public is quickly learning more about it, including the most effective ways to protect pups from getting sick, as well as the most effective ways to care for them if they do. 

Here’s what you need to know.

1. The illness has been located in 17 states, according to the Louisiana School of Veterinary Medicine’s website. But many veterinarians say it has probably spread even further across the U.S.

Why don’t we know for sure? Most states, or even counties, don’t track house pet diseases. Agricultural diseases, yes, but those affecting dogs and cats, no, Ganzer says. “The states that have said, ‘Yes, we’re seeing a lot of cases,’ is usually because their state office has stepped up and said, ‘We want to know that these cases are going on, and we want you guys to let us know what you’re seeing,’ ” she explains.

So it’s best for everyone to be cautious, says Karen Ehnert, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Veterinary Public Health Program. That means keeping your dogs away from other dogs and taking them to a vet at any sign of a cough.

2. It sounds exactly like kennel cough. And there’s no way to tell without testing.

If you’ve ever had a dog with kennel cough, you know how heartbreaking it is to hear them raspy and congested. It sounds like they have something stuck in their throat. 

That’s also the main symptom of this new illness. Although kennel cough can often be a wait-and-see before a visit to the vet, Ganzer says, this dog illness can develop into something much more serious, including pneumonia, so it’s best to get to the vet at the first hacking sound. 

Other symptoms are nasal discharge, sneezing, lethargy and breathing issues, Ehnert says. 

If you suspect your dog may be ill, you should get it to the vet as soon as possible, Ehnert agrees. “The cough can be very prolonged; they have a very long bronchitis that lasts six weeks to two months or even more. Or it can be an acute pneumonia that progresses rapidly; an animal becomes seriously ill and can die within two days,” she says. 

3. Vets may not know exactly how to treat the sickness, but they can often prevent pups from getting worse. 

There is no treatment for this specific illness, Ganzer says, but treatment is available for “opportunistic” secondary illnesses that this one seems to set off, such as pneumonia and strep. 

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Because the problem can get bad quickly, vets are using a more proactive approach, such as getting dogs started on antibiotics right away instead of waiting to see whether they improve on cough suppressants. 

Vets, including Ganzer, are always updating their treatments based on what they find works. She says cases sometimes require “out of the box” thinking. 

“My hospital is going to start doing some treatments that are a little out of the ordinary pretty soon, just with the research that we’ve been doing, and talking to other vets in various other places that have dealt with respiratory illness in the small animal field, large animal field, even human fields,” she says.

spinner image a bull dog is being examined with a stethoscope at veterinarian's office
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4. Just like with humans, a strong immune system will help your pup get through an illness. 

The best thing you can do, Ehnert says, is make sure your dog’s immunizations are all up to date. Although there likely won’t be a vaccine for this illness for years, she says, a fully vaccinated dog will have the upper hand against a tough illness. 

Pay attention to your dog’s life stage, she adds. Puppies and older dogs have weaker immune systems, she says. Make sure you consider the breed of dog you have, as “older” means different ages for different breeds. One dog’s old age is 10 years while another breed might live to 15 or 16. 

5. The other species inhabiting your house — humans, cats, birds (or in my case, the mouse that’s taken residence in my kitchen) — are probably safe. 

A bit of good news: This illness doesn’t seem to be spreading to humans or other types of pets. That said, pay attention if you have other dogs in your house. It is absolutely contagious to them, Ganzer says.

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6. The illness is spreading in dog social circles, so it might be safer to avoid the puppy playdates for now. 

Both veterinarians say this disease seems to spread most rapidly in places where dogs are in close contact with other dogs — boarding kennels, dog grooming facilities, dog parks, etc. So maybe let Fluffy’s fur fly free for a bit, Ganzer says, adding that it’s like when none of us could get a haircut during COVID-19. 

What about when your pup wants to say hello to a dog friend on a walk? Not until we learn more about the illness, Ganzer says, since you can’t be sure if that other dog has been coughing or not. 

If you have a playdate with a dog you know that has no signs of the illness, it is probably OK, Ehnert says. Safety is not about panicking. It’s about exercising caution, she adds. 

If you plan to travel during the holidays, avoid boarding your pup, Ganzer says. Although it’s a big ask for many, she recommends trying to get someone to stay at home with your pet instead. 

7. Bottom line: Don’t try to treat your pup at home. 

The key with this illness is that you can’t identify it at home, and it can get bad quickly, Ehnert says. It’s important that you not try to handle it yourself. 

“I don’t want people to think, Oh, I can treat at home. And then it happens to be one of these acute cases that goes downhill so rapidly, because that may have been a preventable death if they went in right away,” Ehnert says. 

Editor's note: This article was originally published on Nov. 27. It has been updated to reflect new information.

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