Micki McCabe

Jury still out on new ­respiratory ­disease afflicting our canines

Micki McCabe(Jan. 20, 2024) — There has been recent media attention across the country about coughing dogs.

The Associated Press and other news organizations are reporting a seeming uptick in upper respiratory disease that does not appear to respond to the usual treatments for common conditions like kennel cough, including typically chosen antibiotics.

Some experts are recommending avoiding unnecessary contact with unfamiliar dogs, like in dog parks, kennels, etc. The veterinary community wants dogs to be as safe as possible but is stuck in a conundrum of having little substantiated information to share and not wanting to under- or over-alarm the public.

There is a strong belief in the veterinary world that the recent reports do not indicate a particularly perilous situation in need of COVID-like restrictions, but veterinarians are ready and willing to change recommendations if the evidence arises.

And in case you are wondering, COVID is not the culprit.

The common kennel cough

So, let’s talk kennel cough and its many faces. The official catch-all name for this is Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease complex (CIRD). The primary version of CIRD is kennel cough, also known as infectious tracheobronchitis, a common condition characterized by a severe, honking, dry cough, sometimes associated with a mild fever, malaise and ocular discharge.

It is typically self-limiting and is known to be caused by multiple infectious culprits. The typical offenders include the virus Parainfluenza and the bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica, both of which can be seen in concert with one another or each on its own, as well as with several other pathogens, viral and bacterial alike.

In addition, several years ago, canine influenza – yet another virus – started to become identified infrequently in pockets of the country. The United States approved an effective vaccine to help combat this disease, mostly seen in indoor-housing situations like shelters and possibly boarding facilities.

A kennel cough vaccine exists that includes both Parainfluenza and Bordetella pathogens. It can be quite helpful in preventing or lessening the severity of kennel cough infections caused by these two offending agents.

A difficult treatment plan

It is important to note that in general, respiratory viruses have no real effective treatment other than time, cough suppression and supportive care. To make it more complicated, vets often perform no further diagnostics other than a good physical exam and possibly chest X-rays to confirm that the upper airway infection has not progressed to lower respiratory disease such as pneumonia.

There is a PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test that uses a nasal or airway swab to try to identify presently known infectious agents. However, due to costs and delayed time for a pet’s presentation to a veterinarian, these tests are not often performed or are performed too late to catch the perpetrator.

More research pending

As for this possible new disease, several doctors have published opinions recently. World-renowned veterinary infectious disease specialist Dr. J. Scott Weese of the University of Guelph Veterinary School in Canada opines that it may be the usual suspects with a bit of media attention – and not a true uptick in infections.

However, Weese is not ruling out that something new is arising. He states that we don’t have enough information yet to panic.

The good news is that labs such as the New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory are looking into the possibility of regional pockets of infection and whether something could be spreading across the country.

Take precautions

In the meantime, definitely do not take your dog to the dog park if it has been coughing or exposed to a coughing dog. Even self-limiting kennel cough is contagious via airborne droplets in close proximity, as well as from structures that have been coughed or sneezed upon.

If you will be boarding your dog, have a kennel cough vaccine via the intranasal or oral route, ideally within six months of boarding as well as no closer than three days before boarding.

If you are concerned about your dog getting sick, avoiding interaction with dogs you don’t know may be prudent – especially if you have a dog with poor immunity or other underlying conditions.

Email questions and comments to drmccabevet@gmail.com.

Micki McCabe

Micki McCabe, DVM, DACVIM, FAAVA, is a long-time Clayton resident. The recently retired local veterinarian has an interest in internal and integrative medicine.