I’ve held off writing about this but since I’ve been answering many emails about it every day, here we go.

The questions I keep getting (as usual) are “What’s going on with this reported outbreak of respiratory disease in dogs in the US? What new disease is this?”

I’m not sure there’s a new disease here. I’m not even sure there’s a major outbreak (or any outbreak).

Various groups in different areas of the US are reporting cases of respiratory disease in dogs (which we refer to as canine infectious respiratory disease complex, or CIRDC) in dogs in various parts of the US. There’s always limited info about true numbers, and the disease description is vague and quite familiar (coughing dogs, some that get pneumonia, a few that die).

The issue is, that largely describes the every day status quo when it comes to CIRDC. This syndrome is endemic in dogs and has a variety of known causes (e.g. canine parainfluenza virus, Bordetella bronchiseptica, canine respiratory coronavirus, canine pneumovirus, canine influenza virus, Streptococcus zooepidemicus… roughly in that order of occurrence, and maybe the enigmatic Mycoplasma as well). There are also presumably a range of other viruses involved that have been present for a long time but that we don’t diagnose.

We see CIRDC all the time, anywhere there are dogs. There’s a background level of disease that usually flies under the radar, alongside periodic clusters of cases. I get lots of emails every week asking whether there’s more or more severe CIRDC activity at the moment, but I’ve been getting those reports for years, from across North America. To me, that reflects the fact that CIRDC is always circulating, but we notice it more at certain times than others, either because of local clusters or, increasingly, local increases in awareness, often due to media coverage. Media and social media can drive outbreak concerns. They can be great to get the word out and help sort out issues, but often, they lead to false alarms.

  • For example, we might have 100 dogs with CIRDC every week in Guelph (a complete guess since we have no way to track this). Usually, only a few people hear about it. The dogs typically get better and life goes on. However, if someone starts talking about it on social media, we might hear about 50 of those 100 cases. All of a sudden, we have an “outbreak of a disease affecting dozens of dogs” when in reality, we might just have our normal background level of disease that people are actually noticing.

The same thing can happen on a larger scale. There are thousands of coughing dogs in the US every day, since there are millions of dogs. Once people start talking about it, some of these go from “Oh, my dog is coughing. I guess he picked up something at the park. Whatever.” to “OMG, my dog has this new disease that’s sweeping the nation, I need to tell someone!” With the first approach, no one but the owner usually knows or cares. Once we hit the panic button, many owners start to tell everyone about it.

We don’t have any idea if the current stories reflect:

  • A multistate outbreak caused by some new bacterium/virus
  • A multistate outbreak caused by our usual suspects, for some reason
  • Unconnected sporadic local outbreaks caused by usual suspects
  • A slight increase in baseline disease
  • Our normal disease activity with an outbreak of media attention.

I suspect it’s one of the last two. My perception is that we have been seeing a bit more CIRDC activity over the past couple of years, and that we are now seeing a somewhat greater incidence of severe cases. However, with more cases, we see more severe disease, so those are linked. Also, with the explosion of breeds like French bulldogs that are much more likely to have severe outcomes from any respiratory disease (since a large percentage of them have been bred to have completely dysfunction respiratory tracts), increases in deaths could be linked to dog factors, not disease factors.

I never outright discount reports of something potentially new, and we continue to try (futilely so far) to get a better handle on what’s happening with regard to CIRDC activity in different areas. It’s tough, since there’s no effective surveillance system, the voluntary reporting that we’ve tried tends not to get much buy-in (understandably knowing veterinary clinics are swamped by other priorities), testing of sick dogs is expensive and rarely impacts how we care for an individual animal (great for surveillance but harder to justify the cost to an individual owner), and we have little to no funding to do much with companion animal infectious diseases at all.

My guess is this is simply an outbreak of media attention piggybacked on a somewhat increased rate of CIRDC cases that we’ve seen over the past year.

I might be wrong, which is why we’re still trying to collect more data, but I don’t currently see a reason for extra concern.

If you’re worried about canine respiratory disease:

  • Limit your dog’s contacts, especially transient contacts with dogs of unknown health status
  • Keep your dog away from sick dogs
  • If your dog is sick, keep it away from other dogs
  • Talk to your veterinarian about vaccination against canine parainfluenza virus (CPIV) and Bordetella bronchiseptica (plus canine influenza, but influenza is much more sporadic (especially in Canada) and vaccine availability is still an issue).

And, at risk of a flurry of emails, I’ll add… consider health when choosing a dog. That doesn’t mean no Frenchies, but get one that looks like they used to – one with a nose, not the current popular version of the breed.