For the past year or more, we’ve been trying to track infectious upper respiratory tract disease (officially known as “canine infectious respiratory disease complex (CIRDC)” but more commonly called “kennel cough”). It’s a tough thing to do since testing is limited, the disease is always present to some degree in the dog population, and there’s no formal reporting system. Enquiries about CIRDC in different areas seem to fill my inbox in waves, but that’s probably more related to reporting (especially social media rumours) vs actual frequency of illness. This week’s been busy so far with a dozen or so emails asking about things like “new” respiratory diseases, or specific things like canine influenza (and it’s only Monday…).
We’re still not sure what’s going on. It does seem like there’s increased CIRDC activity over a lot of North America right now, and it’s been going on to some degree for quite a while. When we think about increases in respiratory disease reports, there are a few potential causes (as I have mentioned many times before):
Increased disease caused by the usual suspects
- This is my main guess at this point for what’s currently going on. Common things occur commonly, and that’s particularly true for the variety of bacteria and viruses that cause CIRDC in dogs.
- A few potential reasons for the increased disease from these pathogens can be postulated. One is there’s more dogs mixing with each other now as people start to increase activity and get together post-lockdowns, and as people prioritize safer outdoor activities (often with their dogs). Combine that with a surge in new dogs and potentially decreased vaccination (due in part to overloaded veterinary clinics and access difficulties from earlier restrictions), and it’s easy to see how we might have more disease.
- Another potential dynamic is increased use of oral “kennel cough” vaccines, as they are easier to administer to some dogs compared to intranasal vaccines. The problem is oral vaccines only protect against one cause of CIRDC (Bordetella bronchiseptica) while intranasal vaccines protect against Bordetella and canine parainfluenza virus (CPIV). That’s important because CPIV is the most commonly diagnosed cause of CIRDC in many areas.
Increased disease caused by a new pathogen
- We’re always on the lookout for something new, but nothing is apparent yet. With a new virus, we’d be more likely to see widespread transmission in exposed groups, since no dogs would have any immunity. We’re not really seeing that. The cases being reported are more sporadic, as we’d expect with our typical causes of CIRDC. However, we can’t rule out a new pathogen completely, and there are undoubtedly various causes of CIRDC (mainly viral) that we simply haven’t identified yet. I don’t think it’s the explanation for the current situation, though.
Increased reporting of disease
- This is probably part of what we’re seeing. There’s more social media use these days so word spreads quickly. One voice can be amplified disproportionately and unsubstantiated claims can be disseminated easily. Further, it feeds on itself. When there’s more buzz about sick dogs, more people that otherwise wouldn’t have said anything chime in. So, we probably hear about a greater percentage of sick dogs simply because people are talking about them when they otherwise wouldn’t have.
- Also, as more people are at home with their dogs, we probably hear more about the typical mild cases of CIRDC, because owners pay more attention when the dog is coughing beside them all day.
What about SARS-CoV-2?
- SARS-CoV-2 is very unlikely to be playing a role. We can never say never, since the COVID-19 pandemic is a dynamic situation and we don’t know much about recent variants in animals. However, what we know so far is that infection of dogs and cats with SARS-CoV-2 is quite common, but disease is uncommon in cats and rare in dogs.
What about canine influenza?
- Canine flu certainly can cause large outbreaks of respiratory disease in dogs. It spreads quickly because of limited immunity in the dog population. There has been some canine flu activity in a couple places in the US in the past few months, but these seem to have burned out (or at least burned down) relatively quickly.
- There have been social media reports of canine flu outbreaks in Ontario. As far as I know, that’s false. Canine flu is reportable in Ontario, and no such reports have been received from any lab. We haven’t seen canine flu in Ontario since we eradicated it in 2018. I’m always on the lookout for it, but I’m most concerned about flu when there’s an outbreak that has a very high attack rate, including dogs that have had intranasal kennel cough vaccine. We’re still looking but I doubt canine flu is playing a role currently.
What can people who are worried about their dogs do?
- Reduce contacts with large numbers of unknown dogs. Just like with other respiratory pathogens, the more contacts, the greater the risk of encountering someone that’s infectious.
- Reduce contact with sick dogs. This can be harder but it’s common sense: if a dog looks sick (e.g. coughing, runny nose, runny eyes), keep your dog away from it.
- Keep sick dogs at home. (Duh… but you’d be surprised.)
- Avoid things like communal water bowls in parks that are shared by multiple dogs.
- Get your dog vaccinated (ideally intranasally) against kennel cough if it tends to encounter other dogs regularly. My dog doesn’t get this routinely since we live in the country and he has a very limited number of other dogs with which he interacts. If I was in town and/or going to dog parks or other places where he’d mix with lots of dogs of unknown status, I’d vaccinate him (especially as he’s getting older now).
- Consider testing your dog if your dog gets sick. Testing is useful to help figure out what’s going on and maybe to help control things. However, it rarely tells us something that influences care for the individual dog (since we don’t have specific treatments). So, the cost of testing is (understandably) hard to justify for some.
We’re also still tracking cases so people with sick dogs can provide information by filling out our quick survey here: