There’s been a lot of discussion about canine infectious respiratory disease complex (CIRDC) going around in dogs in the US recently. In the last week, I’ve already covered this from a few different angles, including what might really be going on with all the reports of sick dogs, reports of the potential involvement of a potential novel canine respiratory pathogen and when and when not to treat dogs with respiratory disease with antimicrobials. I’ll try to get another post done soon about the data we have (and don’t have). This post will address the most common questions dog owners are asking.

What should dog owners do?

Relax. It seems like there’s more respiratory disease in dogs in some areas, but that’s something we often see. Serious disease is being reported in a small subset of infected dogs, but that’s also something we regularly see. So, being aware is good, being anxious is bad, freaking out is definitely unnecessary.

The vast majority of dogs that get CIRDC recover uneventfully. That’s as true now as it was a year or 10 years ago. However, severe disease can occur so we don’t want to be too dismissive.

My dog is sick. What should I do now?

The default answer is “talk to your veterinarian if you’re concerned.”

However, the answer is not “if your dog coughs, it must be taken to a veterinarian ASAP.” A dog should be taken to a veterinarian if it’s really sick, deteriorating quickly, not getting better over the course of several days (but remember dogs may still cough after they’re feeling better), if there might be complications, or if it’s unclear what’s going on.  If the dog just has mild upper respiratory infection, it rarely needs to be seen by a veterinarian. If it has pneumonia, it definitely needs to see a veterinarian.

Think about it in terms of how we react when we get sick or our kids get sick. If you had a cough and felt a bit run down, you probably wouldn’t go to a doctor unless you had underlying risk factors for severe disease. The same applies to dogs – if they’re pretty bright and alert, are eating and breathing normally, but just have a cough and runny nose or eyes, it’s very unlikely they need to be examined (in part because it’s very unlikely that they need any specific treatment or testing, and because a visit to the veterinary clinic might just cause more stress for the dog and risk exposing other animals.) If you felt like you could barely drag yourself out of bed or you were having a hard time breathing, you’d go to the doctor. That’s also the same for dogs.

While I want to avoid being too prescriptive about who should or shouldn’t see a veterinarian (since there are lots of exceptions and grey areas), if the following signs are present, a prompt visit to the veterinary clinic is indicated:

  • Weakness, severe depression (meaning the dog is really quiet, not engaged and just lies around, doesn’t get up when you’d expect it too (like for food))
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficultly breathing (breathing faster and harder even when not exercising)
  • Rapid worsening of illness
  • Cough that is causing significant problems such as vomiting or making it hard for the dog to breathe

It’s especially important to see the veterinarian if these signs occur in a high-risk dog, including:

  • Elderly
  • Very young
  • Pregnant
  • Immunocompromised (by disease or treatment)
  • Underlying heart or respiratory tract disease
  • Brachycephalic (i.e. squishy-faced) breeds

What will happen when I take my dog to the veterinary clinic?

That’s depends on a lot of things, so it’s hard to say what you should expect.

  • The first thing the staff should do is assess whether it looks like your dog has infectious respiratory disease, and how stable your dog is (in terms of its lung function). Most dogs with CIRDC don’t need anything but time and TLC; so, if your veterinarian says your dog looks stable and no treatment is needed at this point, take that as a good sign. Don’t ask for unnecessary treatments like antimicrobials “just in case.”
  • If your dog’s cough is disruptive, then a cough suppressant may be warranted (but that depends on a few things).
  • If your dog has signs of pneumonia, radiographs of the chest and bloodwork will likely be needed. If pneumonia is confirmed, antimicrobials are indicated.
  • If your dog is really sick, hospitalization with intensive care, antimicrobials and oxygen therapy may be required. That’s uncommon but it happens, and when there’s more respiratory disease activity in an area at a given time, there will be more cases of severe disease too just based on numbers (e.g. 1% severe disease rate in 1000 infected dogs is more really sick dogs than 1% in 100 infected dogs).

The severity of your dog’s illness, the type of illness, what the clinic can offer and (unfortunately) sometimes budget limitations will influence what’s ultimately done.

Additionally, sick dogs should be kept away from other dogs to help reduce the risk of disease transmission. That includes no going to day care, parks or any other places where non-household dogs would be encountered. For how long? That’s hard to say without a diagnosis but I’d aim for at least 2 weeks.

My dog is healthy. What should I do?

Let’s try to keep your dog healthy by limiting its contact with other dogs, especially large numbers of different dogs with unknown health status. Contact with small, stable groups (e.g. an established walking group, a small day care with the same dogs that don’t see a lot of other dogs) is lower risk. Logically, dogs should be kept away from any obviously sick dogs.

What about vaccines for my dog?

Vaccines are available for some of the causes of CIRDC. For any dogs that have frequent contact with other dogs, vaccination against Bordetella bronchiseptica and canine parainfluenza virus is important. Mucosal vaccination (intranasal is preferred, oral is second best) should be done whenever possible. Critically, it is important to use a vaccine that covers both Bordetella and parainfluenza. I suspect that loss of parainfluenza protection because of increased use of Bordetella-only oral vaccines might be driving some of the issues we’re seeing.

Canine influenza (flu) vaccination can be considered too, but it can be hard to get (there are currently some production and backorder issues) and canine flu is a pretty sporadic disease.

My dog is healthy but higher risk for disease or complications (see high risk list above). What should I do?

Take the same precautions described above for non-high risk dogs, but with more rigour. I’d also be quicker to recommend respiratory disease vaccines for these dogs, irrespective of how much contact they have with other dogs.

My own two dogs probably fall into those two risk categories. Both have fairly cloistered lifestyles from an exposure standpoint. Their dog contacts are largely restricted to a small number of well known and similarly low risk dogs.

The young pest, Ozzie, is a one-year-old, healthy Labrador, and is therefore at low risk of exposure and low risk for serious disease. He got an intranasal Bordetella/parainfluenza vaccine this summer so he could go to day care when we were away at a cottage (to give us some Ozzie-free afternoons to relax). The old guy, Merlin, is an 11-year-old Labrador who’s on chemo for chronic lymphoid leukemia. His exposure risk is low but he’s probably at some degree of greater risk for serious disease if he gets infected. There doesn’t seem to be anything remarkable going on locally compared to normal, so it’s status quo for them, but I’d be quicker to vaccinate Merlin if I decided vaccination might be warranted, especially if influenza hit the area.

As with any emerging issue, the current situation in the US is fluid, and we’re trying to sort out more about what’s happening. At the moment, for your average dog owner, it’s still just a matter of some common sense precautions and good dog care.