Dog respiratory illnesses are spreading—what we know so far

December 16, 2023 - 9 min read

The information in this article has been reviewed by Kirsten Ronngren, DVM MRCVS on December 16, 2023 . Although it may provide helpful guidance, it should not be substituted for professional veterinary advice.

Dog getting a nebulizer
Dog getting a nebulizer

If you’re a dog parent, there’s a good chance you’re aware of the mystery respiratory illness that’s been sweeping across the canine community, affecting dogs in multiple US states.

With clinics from coast to coast seeing more dogs needing treatment or hospitalization, and some states like Oregon experiencing a marked increase, it's clear this issue demands attention.

Veterinary professionals are reporting a significant uptick in respiratory cases, prompting an urgent investigation into its causes and spread. The question is: is this actually a new disease, or is it an existing disease that’s been spreading more quickly than usual?

Let’s explore everything we currently know about this illness, from causes to symptoms and treatment.

Understanding this new respiratory illness in dogs

The recent surge in respiratory illnesses among dogs has put veterinarians and pet owners on high alert. It’s suspected to not just be a simple case of a single unknown pathogen wreaking havoc; it's more complex and potentially involves a variety of contributing factors. 

In general, Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex (CIRDC), often known as “kennel cough,” is caused by a collection of bacteria and/or viruses, affecting dogs of any breed or age. This includes bacteria like Bordetella and Mycoplasma, as well as viruses like canine influenza.

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While many mild cases of CIRDC are self-limiting within a week or so, it can lead to severe conditions like pneumonia. Transmission occurs through direct contact or contaminated objects, with outbreaks common in places with high dog-to-dog interaction.

Control in group settings can be difficult due to asymptomatic carriers. Vaccination is beneficial, especially in high-risk environments.

Treatment depends on the disease's severity, with isolation being crucial for symptomatic dogs. Preventative measures like vaccinations and avoiding areas known for outbreaks are crucial, especially as the current crisis intensifies and the risk of transmission increases.

Whether or not this current uptick in respiratory illness is caused by a member of this group or a completely new pathogen is still uncertain. More on this later.

Geographic variability and spread

Interestingly, the spread of the current “outbreak” is not uniform across the United States. Some states, like Oregon, have reported a notable increase in cases, suggesting that environmental factors or regional differences in dog populations might play a role.

Over the last one to two years, there has been a steady climb in reported respiratory cases in dogs nationwide, suggesting that this issue may have been brewing for some time and is only now reaching a tipping point.

Rapid spread vs. aggressive baseline disease

Veterinarians are actively trying to understand the nature of this outbreak.

One key question is whether we're seeing an increase in cases purely due to rapid transmission—a numbers game where more dogs are getting sick because the disease is highly contagious, inherently meaning that we will also simply see more dogs develop severe symptoms—or if the baseline disease itself is more aggressive, leading to more severe symptoms.

This distinction is crucial, as it impacts how veterinarians and pet owners should respond. If the rapid spread is due to higher contagion, the focus will likely be on enhancing preventive measures to control transmission. But if increased severity is at play, the emphasis will likely shift to developing more directed treatment strategies.

Implications for canine health

Whether this outbreak is related to a currently known organism or a new one is an important distinction. It raises questions about the effectiveness of existing vaccinations against the offending pathogen and whether there may be a need for new or modified vaccines.

As research continues and more data becomes available, veterinarians and dog owners alike must stay vigilant and informed to protect the health and well-being of pups around the country.

Diagnostic challenges and current findings

As veterinarians and researchers grapple with the recent surge in canine respiratory illnesses, diagnostic efforts have been pivotal in understanding and combating this illness. However, these diagnostics come with their own set of challenges and complexities.

Two diagnostic tools are being commonly employed to identify the pathogens involved in this outbreak:

  • Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing: PCR is a sophisticated technique used to detect the genetic material of pathogens. While it's effective in identifying what organisms may be present, it doesn't indicate how to treat the illness or if the detected organisms are in fact causing the disease.

  • Bacterial culture: This method involves growing bacteria from a sample to identify which type is present. It's crucial for determining whether a bacterial infection is involved and which antibiotics might be effective. Again, these need to be assessed carefully, as it’s possible for certain pathogens to be present but not necessarily be the cause of the clinical symptoms.

Interpreting the results of these tests can be challenging. Current results show a variety of organisms, including parainfluenza, bordetella, mycoplasma, and influenza. This diversity indicates that multiple pathogens might be contributing to the issue. Conversely, many symptomatic dogs being tested are coming back with completely negative tests.

And the timing of when tests are conducted can impact results. Late testing might miss the period when the dog is shedding the virus, leading to false negatives.

Some dogs can test positive for these viruses or bacteria without showing any symptoms, complicating the understanding of disease spread and the significance of positive test results.

In cases where symptoms are more severe and/or pneumonia is suspected, veterinarians will recommend imaging of the airways for confirmation, namely x-rays.

Veterinarians are relying on a combination of diagnostic results, clinical signs, and patient history to make informed decisions about treatment. Meanwhile, veterinary professionals and epidemiologists continue to collect and analyze data. This ongoing research is vital to developing a clearer understanding of the outbreak and to inform future prevention and treatment strategies.

Identifying symptoms and seeking treatment

Early detection and prompt veterinary care can make a major difference in the outcome for affected dogs.

The symptoms of respiratory illnesses in dogs can vary, but there are several key indicators that should prompt concern. These include:

  • Coughing

  • Sneezing and nasal discharge

  • Discharge from eyes

  • Lethargy 

  • Appetite changes

  • Breathing difficulties

If your dog exhibits any of these symptoms, it's important to contact your veterinarian promptly. This is especially true for symptoms like difficulty breathing or significant changes in appetite or energy levels, which can indicate more serious underlying conditions, such as pneumonia.

It's important to note that brachycephalic breeds—dogs with short noses and flat faces, like Bulldogs and Pugs – are at increased risk of respiratory issues. These breeds already have compromised breathing systems, so any respiratory illness can be particularly severe.

Other types of dogs that may be at increased risk include senior dogs, young puppies, and dogs with other underlying medical conditions such as airway or heart disease.

coughing dog

Treatment options

Treatment for respiratory illnesses in dogs depends on the severity and cause of the symptoms. It may include:

  • Medication: Depending on the symptoms, medications such as antibiotics (for bacterial infections) or other specific treatments may be necessary.

  • Supportive care: Ensuring your dog is comfortable, well-hydrated, and properly nourished. Many non-complicated, mild cases of respiratory illness in dogs can be resolved with supportive care alone.

  • Hospitalization: In severe cases, especially where pneumonia is suspected, hospitalization may be required to provide intensive care.

Even if your dog recovers, continued monitoring and preventive measures are important. Subsequent check-ups may be necessary to ensure a full recovery and to prevent relapses or complications.

Medications (including antibiotics)

Antibiotic therapy is common in some cases, but it’s important to understand that antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections, not viral ones. Many of the respiratory illnesses in dogs during this period have been viral in nature, which means antibiotics may not be appropriate.

In general, vets have been advocating for the judicious use of antibiotics. This means only using them when there is clear evidence or strong suspicion of a bacterial component to the illness. It's important to trust your vet's expertise and understand that unnecessary antibiotic use can lead to resistance, making them less effective when they’re truly needed.

Supportive care

Supportive care forms the backbone of treatment for many canine respiratory illnesses, focusing on maintaining the dog's comfort and supporting their natural recovery processes. This type of care includes:

  • Hydration and nutrition: Ensuring that your dog remains well-hydrated is crucial. This might involve providing water, electrolyte solutions, or, in more severe cases, intravenous fluids. Good nutrition is also important for recovery, and special dietary adjustments may be recommended.

  • Rest and comfort: Allowing the dog to rest in a comfortable, stress-free environment can aid in recovery. This includes providing a warm and quiet place away from other pets and disturbances.

H3: Symptomatic treatments

​​Symptomatic treatments are targeted at alleviating the specific symptoms the dog is experiencing, aiming to provide relief and improve quality of life during recovery. Some of these may be recommended at home, but as symptoms become more severe, patients will often be hospitalized for more aggressive management and care.

Key symptomatic treatments include:

  • Cough suppressants: If the dog has a persistent cough, veterinarians may prescribe cough suppressants to provide relief and comfort. In some cases, however, these may not be appropriate.

  • Nebulization and steam therapy: In some cases, nebulization (using a device to create a fine mist of medication for the dog to inhale) can help ease breathing difficulties. Steam therapy, like letting the dog sit in a bathroom filled with steam from a hot shower, can also help clear the airways. This is more commonly used in cases of pneumonia to loosen debris in the lower airways and encourage its expulsion.

  • Oxygen therapy: For dogs with severe breathing difficulties, oxygen therapy may be necessary. This is typically done at a veterinary hospital or clinic.

Other treatments may also be involved for respiratory cases, such as anti-inflammatories and immune support. These can be added on a case-by-case basis based on your veterinarian’s judgment.

Ultimately, each dog's treatment plan should be individually tailored, taking into account their specific symptoms and overall health. It's crucial for pet owners to work closely with their veterinarians to choose the most appropriate treatment approach.

Preventative measures and risk assessment

Taking preventative measures is key to protecting your dog.

Let’s explore steps dog owners can take to mitigate the risk of their pets contracting or spreading the illness and how to assess the risks in various situations.

Vaccinations: The first line of defense

In the midst of this canine respiratory disease outbreak, vaccinations have taken center stage. Understanding their role is crucial for dog owners seeking to protect their pets.

Vaccinations have long been a cornerstone of preventative veterinary medicine. They work by preparing the immune system to fight off specific pathogens. In the context of the current crisis, ensuring that dogs are up-to-date on their respiratory vaccinations could be a key factor in reducing the spread and severity of the disease. Vaccines for Bordetella (commonly associated with kennel cough), canine distemper, and influenza are particularly relevant. Vaccinations are known to reduce the severity of symptoms, even if they do not completely prevent infection. A fully vaccinated dog might still contract a respiratory illness but is likely to experience a milder form of the disease (if any symptoms at all) compared to an unvaccinated dog.

Veterinary experts are currently investigating whether there’s a significant difference in the incidence of this respiratory disease between vaccinated and unvaccinated dogs. This research is vital; if vaccinated dogs are also falling ill, it might indicate that the outbreak involves new or resistant strains of pathogens, potentially necessitating the development of new interventions.

Regular check-ins with your veterinarian are also important; among other things, this can keep you abreast of any new vaccination recommendations as the situation evolves.

Social exposure and risk management

Limiting your dog’s exposure to other dogs is a practical step. This might mean avoiding dog parks, grooming facilities, training classes, and boarding kennels where close contact with other dogs is common.

This tactic can be especially important in areas with a high incidence of illness, as the most common way for respiratory disease to spread is directly from dog to dog via infected bodily fluids (saliva, nasal discharge, ocular discharge, etc.).

While complete isolation isn't practical or beneficial for most dogs, understanding the risks and making informed decisions about social activities are important. For instance, if your dog is young, a senior, or has pre-existing health conditions, they might be more vulnerable to respiratory diseases.

Healthy practices in daily life

Keep a close eye on your dog’s health and behavior. Early detection of symptoms can lead to quicker treatment and reduce the spread of the illness.

Remember, each dog is different. Consider your dog’s age, breed, health status, and vaccination history when assessing risk. Dogs with pre-existing respiratory issues or weakened immune systems may require extra precautions. And dogs who regularly interact with many other dogs may have a higher risk of exposure.

As part of a community, dog owners have a responsibility to help prevent the spread of diseases. This means being cautious about exposing your dog to others if they show any signs of illness.

Make sure you keep up-to-date with local advisories and guidelines related to pet health and public safety.

Stay up-to-date, and don’t panic

It's natural for dog owners to be concerned. But that doesn’t mean you should panic. Staying informed and maintaining a balanced perspective are crucial for navigating this situation effectively.

It's important to seek information from reliable sources, such as veterinary professionals, recognized animal health organizations, and scientific studies. Try to avoid sensationalized news that may cause undue alarm.

And make sure you assess the risk for your specific dog, considering their age, health status, lifestyle, and vaccination history. Not all dogs will be at equal risk! And feel free to continually check in with your vet, who can continually provide you with updates on the outbreak and advice tailored to your dog’s health needs.

You should also keep an eye on local health advisories related to pets, including any specific recommendations or restrictions. 

The bottom line

Vigilance and proactive care can help protect your dog’s health during these challenging times. Remember:

  • Stay informed about the latest developments and follow advice from veterinary professionals.

  • Maintain up-to-date vaccinations and take preventive measures to minimize your dog’s exposure to potential risks.

  • Recognize symptoms early and seek prompt veterinary care for the best outcomes.

It’s also worth considering the security and peace of mind that dog insurance can provide. During a public health crisis, having a safety net can help you manage veterinary expenses and ensure the best possible care for your pup.

*The information in this article is based on consultation with Dr. Kirsten Ronngren, DVM MRCVS, as well as publicly available reporting. When it comes the illnesses explored in this article, information regarding origins, treatments, and impacts is still unknown or limited. Our primary recommendation is that you take your pet to the vet if you detect signs of illness.

David Teich
Lead Editor

David oversees content strategy and development at ManyPets. As Lead Editor, he focuses on delivering accurate information related to pet care and insurance. David’s editorial background spans more than a decade, including a pivotal role at Digiday, where he wrote content and managed relationships with media and tech companies. As an Associate Editor at Cynopsis Media, David wrote the Cynopsis Digital newsletter and interviewed executives and digital marketing experts in the TV industry. His background also includes film journalism. His diverse experiences in journalism and marketing underpins his role in shaping content within the pet care industry.