Dogs Across the U.S. Are Falling Sick From a Mystery Illness. Here’s What to Know

The Oregon Veterinary Medical Association has suggested “caution rather than worry” in dog owners. Credit - Catherine Falls–Getty Images

A respiratory illness with an unknown cause is sickening dogs in Oregon and other states, prompting warnings from governments and veterinarians about keeping pets safe.

From August to mid-November, Oregon’s state government received a little more than 200 reports of the illness, which exhibits symptoms of a chronic cough or pneumonia that does not respond to antibiotics. Oregon’s Department of Agriculture told TIME, via email on Saturday, Nov. 18, that it was anecdotally aware of similar cases throughout the country including New Hampshire and surrounding northeastern states, Colorado, Indiana, Illinois, Washington, Idaho and California.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is the illness?

Oregon’s Department of Agriculture began receiving reports of an “atypical canine infectious respiratory disease” circulating in the Portland metro and Willamette Valley areas in August. As of Nov. 16, the department said it’s received more than 200 reports of cases from veterinarians.

The cause of the illness is still unknown. The department said on Nov. 9 that cases appear to share a viral cause, but common respiratory diagnostic testing has been largely negative. A handful of cases tested positive for Mycoplasma cynos (M. cynos), a bacteria linked to canine respiratory diseases, but it wasn’t believed to be the underlying cause, the department said.

Oregon officials said they’re working with vets and scientists to begin a widespread sampling of cases to diagnose the cause and implement a diagnostic testing plan.

What are the symptoms you should be looking out for?

The Oregon Veterinary Medical Association said symptoms include a chronic mild to moderate cough that lasts at least six to eight weeks, and chronic pneumonia or acute pneumonia that rapidly becomes severe and often leads to poor outcomes in as little as 24 to 36 hours. Cases are minimally or non-responsive to antibiotics.

The association said that in general, you should contact a vet if your dog exhibits symptoms including coughing, sneezing, nasal and/or eye discharge, and lethargy.

How serious is it?

When asked if there were any confirmed deaths from the disease, Oregon’s Department of Agriculture told TIME that “reports of illness and other outcomes are coming in,” but could not provide a number.

Kurt Williams, director of the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Oregon State University, is quoted as telling the Associated Press that “dogs have died,” but said that it’s hard to count how many died from a severe form of the infection without any clear way to define the disease or test for it yet.

Williams cautioned dog owners to not panic and told them to make sure pets are up-to-date on vaccinations.

The Oregon Veterinary Medical Association suggested “caution rather than worry” on Nov. 9. Periodic outbreaks of respiratory diseases occur in dogs and cases can be serious, the association said. Cases more commonly occur in animals housed in settings such as shelters, boarding or training facilities rather than in animals housed in private homes, especially those with limited access to other dogs, the association explained.

What should you do and where can you get help?

Oregon’s Agriculture Department recommend pet owners consult a veterinarian, since the state agency said there is no “one-size-fits-all recommendation” for a potentially broad range of respiratory diseases.

The Oregon Veterinary Medical Association encourages dog owners to speak to a veterinarian about what vaccines may be appropriate for their dog, including ones that target canine influenza, Bordetella and parainfluenza.

If dog owners are concerned, vets recommend reducing contact with large numbers of unknown dogs, keeping pets away from others that look sick and avoiding communal water bowls.

“Just like with other respiratory pathogens, the more contacts your dog has, the greater the risk of encountering a dog that’s infectious,” the vet association said.

For dogs attending events or situations with a group of other dogs, vets suggested making sure all dogs are up-to-date on vaccines, conducting a health check 12 to 24 hours before the event and having a vet on-site to check dogs’ health issues. If your dog is sick, vets say you should consider having your dog tested with a PCR test to help determine the cause.

Contact your local vet or follow the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association or American Veterinary Medical Association for updates and tips on how to keep your dog safe.

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