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Mystery Canine Respiratory Disease? What We Know

by | Dec 4, 2023 | Dog Training & Care | 0 comments

Each fall and winter heralds a rise in respiratory illnesses in people–and also in coughing dogs. Like humans, dogs can contract a number of hacking, wheezing, coughing, yucky illnesses that make them feel bad. Canine respiratory diseases get lumped together as canine infectious respiratory disease complex (CIRDC). These are a constellation of different illnesses resulting from viral, fungal, or bacterial infections.

One of the most common, kennel cough, spreads easily from dog to dog. It gets its name because dogs housed closely together in kennels, boarding facilities, shelters, and similar places provide the perfect transmission opportunity. But recently, an apparent increase in dog respiratory disease has owners, and many vets concerned.

sick puppy

New Canine Respiratory Disease?

I’ve waited to weigh in because so much remains unknown, even among the experts. Some media outlets wave and shout about the scary condition that has, in fact, left some dogs sick for weeks despite rigorous treatments. Veterinary professionals and groups, addressing the outcry for information, have provided important precautions to help stem the spread of illness and protect your dogs (see below).

And still others, like one of my favorite sources Worms And Germs blog, suggest the increase in CIRDC happens every year and questions if the hand-waving scare tactics help or hinder. “This could be something new, but more likely, it’s the usual suspects doing their usual thing (possibly at higher rates in some areas, as fairly commonly occurs periodically),” writes Dr. Scott Weese (a veterinary internist, a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine) on the November 22, 2023 post.

Almost all canine respiratory illnesses get the same treatment. When caused by viral agents, antibiotics won’t help much unless the disease progresses into bacterial pneumonia. So treatment often simply supports the patient, with therapy to relieve the symptoms. Vaccination helps prevent kennel cough and canine parainfluenza. Today we also have a vaccination for “dog flu.”

coughing dog

Common Signs of Dog Respiratory Disease

Remember that coughing only points to illness, and isn’t a disease. Dogs cough for many reasons, from viral infection to anatomical issues like collapsed trachea. Sometimes dogs chew up and swallow items that get stuck, and also cause coughing. Older dogs may develop congestive heart failure that results in coughing when fluid collects and makes breathing difficult. Bronchitis, fungal infection, laryngeal paralysis, heartworms, and some parasites (lungworms and threadworms) all trigger coughing episodes. If you have concerns, call your vet, but mild upper respiratory illness often resolves over a few days. A basic (routine) upper respiratory infection includes these signs:

  • cough
  • runny eyes (clear tears)
  • runny nose (clear discharge)
  • mild fever
  • lower energy
  • still eating & breathing okay
old pekingese dog
Old dogs and short-muzzle breeds like this Pekingese have a higher risk for respiratory problems.

Respiratory Signs to See Vet ASAP

Thick yellowish eye or nose discharge point to more serious infection. But your dog’s attitude and breathing issues determine the seriousness of the condition. Very old or young dogs have a higher risk for complications. So do brachycephalic breeds (Pugs, Bulldogs, “smoosh” faced dogs). See your vet immediately if:

  • depressed attitude (not engaged)
  • weakness
  • won’t eat
  • breathing harder/faster
  • cough leads to vomiting or struggling to breathe

Once the lungs become involved (you’ll hear crackling or wheezing as they breathe), infection may have progressed to pneumonia. If your dog has goopy discharge with fever and depressed activity, wheezing or crackling breathing, see your veterinarian immediately.

Signs of “New” Disease

According to the AVMA, The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) has received more than 200 case reports from veterinarians since the middle of August. These cases fall into three categories of illness:

  • Chronic mild-to-moderate inflammation of the trachea lasting six to eight weeks or longer, which is minimally or not responsive to antimicrobials.
  • Chronic pneumonia that is minimally or not responsive to antimicrobials.
  • Acute pneumonia that rapidly becomes severe and often leads to poor outcomes in as little as 24 to 36 hours.

After release of this information, veterinarians began reporting similar cases across the country. To date, this “new” disease has been reported in more than a dozen states, and in Canada.

Don’t Panic! But Protect Your Dog

“The vast majority of dogs that get CIRDC recover uneventfully. That’s as true now as it was a year or 10 years ago. However, severe disease can occur so we don’t want to be too dismissive,” notes Dr. Weese in a recent post.

To prevent the spread of disease, avoid taking your dog to places where they come in contact with other dogs. While professional responsible pet businesses like groomers and daycare services take precautions, they can’t always control every situation. So if your area has an increase in canine respiratory illness (ask your vet), think twice about taking your dog to:

  • dog parks
  • dog shows
  • doggy daycare
  • groomers
  • boarding facilities
  • the local pet supply store

Equally important, if your dog has signs of illness, please keep them home. Don’t expose other dogs to a potentially challenging illness.

I’m not a veterinarian, or a medical researcher. But I can provide you with links to reputable sources for a deeper dive into what’s known (and not known) about the current rise in canine respiratory illness. This webinar, sponsored by Trupanion pet insurance, and answers many questions.

Speakers include Dr. Scott Weese, a veterinary internist, and Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine; Dr. Michael Lappin, a veterinary internist, and Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine; Dr. Carrie Jurney, a veterinary neurologist and practice owner at Remedy Veterinary Specialists in San Francisco; and moderated by Dr. Steve Weinrauch, BVMS, MRCVS, the Chief Veterinary/Product Officer of Trupanion.

Q & A About Canine Respiratory Disease Webinar Nov. 30, 2023 (recording available)

My colleague Sassafras Lowrey has written an interesting update here.

I love hearing from you, so please share comments and questions. Do you have an ASK AMY question you’d like answered? Do you have a new kitten and need answers? Stay up to date on all the latest just subscribe the blog, “like” me on Facebook, and sign up for Pet Peeves newsletter.

Stay up to date with the latest book giveaways and appearances related to my September Day pet-centric THRILLERS WITH BITE!  Amy Shojai, CABC is a certified cat & dog behavior consultant, a consultant to the pet industry, and the award-winning author of 35+ pet-centric books and Thrillers with Bite! Oh, and she loves bling!


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