I had a call from a colleague in Ottawa (Ontario) the other day, asking if I’d seen an increase in kennel cough in dogs lately. Kennel cough is a respiratory infection of dogs that can be caused by a variety of different viruses and bacteria, or combinations thereof, but is often associated with the bacterium Bordetella bronchiseptica. Apparently, this colleague’s clinic has seen a large number of cases compared to normal, and he was wondering if the trend was more widespread and/or if there’s something new out there to be concerned about.

Informal reports like this are often the key to identifying new problems. There are only a few reportable diseases of companion animals (such as rabies), and existing federal and provincial public health and animal health agencies tend to have little mandate regarding non-reportable infectious diseases of companion animals. That means that there is no centralized reporting or investigation for all these other diseases (in other words: we’re on our own).

Most often, reports of higher disease rates or suspected outbreaks don’t end up leading to anything. Things tend to revert back to baseline fairly quickly without any explanation of what happened. Sometimes, however, reports like this are the first in a series that can flag the emergence of a new disease or a change in existing disease patterns.

Is anything actually going on with kennel cough in Ottawa? It’s hard to say. A report like this could be due to:

  • A focal outbreak caused by exposure at a single kennel, park or event.
  • A local outbreak of "run-of-the-mill" kennel cough that is being spread from multiple sources, but which involves the normal kennel cough bacteria and viruses.
  • Increased reporting of the normal baseline rate of disease, with increased awareness leading to the appearance of an outbreak.
  • A new disease (either a brand new disease or, more likely, the first instance of an existing disease in the area).

Whenever I hear reports like this in Ontario, I think about canine influenza. This virus is present in dogs in many regions of North America, but we have yet to identify it in Ontario (at least from the last data I have. We also couldn’t find any evidence of canine influenza virus in a surveillance study we did a while ago). It is certainly possible that this virus could make it to Ontario, and I would not be surprised at all if canine flu caused a readily detectable cluster of respiratory disease cases when it arrived.

Should dog owners in Ottawa be worried? No.

Should dog owners and veterinarians in Ottawa pay attention? Sure. It’s always good to be aware of things that are happening locally. Dog owners need to be aware of the risk of exposure to a variety of infectious diseases. Veterinarians should consider testing for canine influenza (and dog owners need to be willing to pay for the testing) if they see changes in respiratory disease patterns in their area.

How can dog owners reduce the risk of exposure of their dogs to respiratory diseases? Common sense. The more dogs that a dog meets, the closer they get to them and the less vaccination in the population, the greater the risk. Kenneling and other situations where many dogs get together increase the risk, and preemptive kennel cough vaccination should be considered in such cases. This vaccine doesn’t protect against all causes of respiratory infection, but it can protect against some of the most likely causes. People should keep their dogs away from other dogs that look sick (especially dogs that are coughing), and if they have a sick dog, they should keep their dog away from other dogs for a few weeks.

(click image for source)