There’s still not really a lot to report with the current canine infectious respiratory disease situation in North America, which is probably good news. As ever, we’re largely flying blind because we have no coordinated surveillance for canine infectious respiratory disease, so we’re try to figure out as much as we can through a variety of sources.

Current status:

The hype is dying down. We’re seeing a far fewer reports of disease in dogs, and I’m getting fewer calls from veterinarians. The question is whether that’s because there’s less disease, or because people have gotten bored with reporting or have simply adapted to the current situation. The news cycle is pretty short, as are attention spans, so in the absence of fairly dramatic changes, social media and traditional media usually move on fairly quickly. My somewhat educated guess is that we still have an elevated baseline level of canine infectious respiratory disease complex (CIRDC)(which has been gradually increasing over the last couple of years), and some local outbreaks (as we always have), and decreasing rates of CIRDC in places that reported higher numbers this past fall. Those are all things we expect with the normal waxing and waning of endemic disease.

Where is this disease present?

CIRDC is everywhere, as always.

I get a bit annoyed seeing reports about “the disease” being present or absent in a particular area or those that try to give it a new name like “atypical CIRDC.” Canine infectious respiratory disease has been around as long as dogs have been around. Various respiratory viruses and bacteria are circulating in the dog population all the time, everywhere. When people ask “is it here?!” they’re really referring to an increase in CIRDC (or an increase in awareness of it), not introduction of some specific pathogen. Maps showing where the disease “is” cause confusion, and they’re purely made up.

Increased rates of disease absolutely occur in different areas at different time. When that happens, sometimes it’s missed, sometimes it’s high profile. Almost invariably, rates come down again after a few weeks, as things revert to normal.

Is there a new “mystery virus” causing disease in dogs?

Many good laboratories are doing deep sequencing to look for any new pathogens. The longer we go without anyone reporting something potentially relevant, the less likely it is that something new is involved. It’s possible that (but would be really disappointing if) a laboratory has found something they’re not reporting, but given the number of laboratories that are working on this, if there was a widespread new virus, I’m pretty sure we’d know by now.

My theory is still that the increase in CIRDC is being caused by our regular respiratory pathogens (e.g. canine parainfluenza virus, Bordetella bronchiseptica, canine respiratory coronavirus, canine pneumovirus, Mycoplasma) doing their regular things, just at higher levels in some areas.

What about that weird Mycoplasma-like bug from the laboratory in New Hampshire?

Not much new has been reported on this finding either. It’s good that they’re still working on it, but we’re not hearing similar reports from other laboratories, so it’s probably not a key player. If this bug is a cause of disease in dogs, I’d guess it’s something that’s been a cause of disease all along, but we just didn’t know about it, versus it being a new organism that’s emerged and is spreading in the dog population.

Do our “kennel cough” vaccines still work?

Yes (and no). We have good mucosal (i.e. intranasal, oral) vaccines for some respiratory pathogens in dogs that work quite well. The problem is that they don’t work against all causes of canine infectious respiratory disease. We have vaccines that will cover one or more of Bordetella, canine parainfluenza virus and adenovirus; while they don’t protect against other pathogens, protection against those three is important (especially the first two).

We also have a vaccine against canine H3N2 influenza virus. It’s been in short supply because of production issues over the past couple of years. Canine flu is a sporadic (but locally dramatic) cause of disease in dogs in the US. Like any flu vaccine, the canine flu vaccines are moderately effective and best for prevention of severe disease (versus prevention of infection), and are lower on my priority list for the average dog.

What do we do now?

  • Dog owners should relax. Think about your dog’s exposure risk and susceptibility to severe disease, and make some modifications to their routine if indicated. Talk to your veterinarian about respiratory disease vaccines. And did I mention relax?
  • As for me – Wait. Watch. Continue to collect as much data as we can. Continue to try to walk the fine line between increasing peoples’ awareness of CIRDC and avoiding paranoia/panic.

Why don’t we have a good canine disease surveillance system?

Money, specifically lack thereof. That’s not the whole issue but it’s a lot of it. The broader issues include:

  • Animal disease control and regulation has historically been developed for food animals. Animal health is usually under the purview of agriculture or food safety agencies. So, there is often little or no mandate to cover companion animals, and less expertise. There are often inadequate resources to cover core mandates with livestock species, let alone something peripheral like dogs. It’s not that these groups aren’t interested, it’s mainly that they don’t have the time, staffing or mandate to do much.
  • Limited veterinary infectious disease expertise. The veterinary infectious disease world is pretty small. There aren’t many of us and we have a finite degree of bandwidth.
  • Testing for CIRDC is scattered amongst various private, academic and government laboratories. Those system aren’t currently able to communicate effectively, and there are often various barriers to data sharing.  For effective surveillance, we need a coordinated, real-time system with integration of data across these sources. That’s probably a long way away.
  • There’s very little funding for companion animal infectious diseases, both for surveillance systems and targeted research. I think we get a lot of bang-for-buck with the limited money that flows to the area, but it’s really hard to get any money to investigate things like this. That means we don’t get the data we need and we don’t train more experts in the area.
  • Detailed study of disease situations like this requires collaboration with primary care veterinary clinics. That’s really tough because of the workload that they currently have – they’re swamped. Adding more work (usually unfunded) isn’t something for which most clinics are up, at least on a long-term basis. We can get little targeted studies done with some clinics, but it’s hard to do the broad work that’s needed with financial and IT support to make it viable over time.  

Am I optimistic or pessimistic for where we’ll be with CIRDC heading into 2024?

I’m fairly optimistic. I’ve felt this situation was overblown from the start, with some real disease issues over-amplified by media and social media. I’m not dismissing the real impacts in some areas and on some dogs, but I’ve never been convinced that we have a massive, broad outbreak. There have been real impacts, real concerns, as well as excessive fear, and there’s been a lot of good work done trying to sort this out. Increasing awareness about CIRDC in dogs and disease prevention is always good. As we head into 2024, hopefully we’ll see a continued die-down in reports of (and actual) disease, and improvements in infection prevention.