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Wisconsin veterinarian gives insight into unusual dog respiratory illness

A new respiratory illness in dogs has veterinarians stumped.
Julie Marsh
A new respiratory illness in dogs has veterinarians stumped.

Veterinarians have seen a rise in an unusual respiratory illness in dogs across the country.

While they try to pinpoint what’s causing the illness, they’re encouraging people to take basic precautions to keep their pets healthy.

Wisconsin is among the states that have likely seen cases of the illness, which causes dogs to experience a wide range of symptoms including kennel cough and flu-like symptoms.

To learn more about the unusual disease, Lake Effect spoke with Dr. Keith Poulsen, a veterinarian and director of the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

What is the new unusual respiratory illness affecting dogs? 

Poulsen explains that veterinarians and veterinarian diagnostic labs around the country currently don’t have an exact case definition for the mysterious illness, but veterinarians are certain it’s causing a lasting respiratory disease in dogs.

“Each state is reporting something a little bit different,” Poulsen says. "But I think the minimum that we're finding is that dogs are presenting with cough and they are not responsive to the first line of treatment that we typically do for something for like kennel cough, which we normally see more in times like this when it gets colder and people are traveling and they're boarding their dogs."

“This cough is lasting much longer. Most of my colleagues in the Dane County area, and now all over the state, they're reporting dogs are coughing for four and even up to eight weeks,” he says.

Have any cases of the illness been detected in Wisconsin? 

Poulsen explains that it’s hard to say a case has been detected without actually knowing what’s causing the increase in respiratory disease.

“Most labs are reporting a high morbidity, or a lot of sick dogs, but a low mortality — very few dogs are dying from it,” Poulsen says.

“But even with few dogs that are dying … any dog that dies, it's hard because the dogs are part of our families. It's hard to do that on something that we don't really know what’s causing the disease. Is it a combination of a virus and a bacteria, or why is it spreading so quickly? It’s a lot of unanswered questions.”

How are veterinarians treating the unusual respiratory illness? 

Poulsen says treatment for dogs showing signs of the illness varies by each case.

“It really depends on the dog, but I think the basics for treatment through your veterinarian are going to be antimicrobials, a cough suppressant and maybe pain [medicine],” he explains. “Then, supportive care and making sure your dogs are eating and drinking. Some of the dogs, many of my colleagues around the state are contacting [the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic lab] and saying, ‘We're not seeing a good treatment success with our first line antimicrobials, and then we’re using a more intensive antimicrobial therapy. So, it can be pretty complex, and we typically tailor that to each individual animal.”

Can humans or other animals catch the illness?

Poulsen says it’s important to note that veterinarians are not seeing dogs spread the disease to people or other species but will have a better idea of the risks when they learn more about the culprit behind the illness.

“We do not anticipate sick dogs that cough to infect other domestic animals in the house, be it a bird or a cat, and certainly not their owners,” Poulsen says. “We have seen it spread from one dog to another, so people with multiple dogs. We've also seen [cases where] only one dog in the household was sick. Everyone has a unique immune response and ability to fight off any type of respiratory pathogens.”

What can pet owners do to help prevent the spread of the unusual disease?

Poulsen encourages pet owners to make sure that their dogs are up-to-date on their core vaccines and anything else that their dogs might be at risk for. He says high-risk dogs should also be vaccinated if dog owners are taking their dogs to dog daycare or boarding.

“If we have a dog at a higher risk, make sure they're vaccinated, if [they] go to dog daycare or dog boarding,” he says.

He also says dog owners should consider avoiding the dog park at peak hours.

“We can still prevent the preventables,” Poulsen says. “In this newer emerging respiratory disease, we're doing the best that we can, with a pretty immense infrastructure, to see if we can find something that we can target specifically for this disease.

Poulsen says, “Unfortunately, around the country, we just haven't had any smoking guns, or something of, ‘This is the exact diagnosis and this is what we can do to either prevent it, or treat it effectively and efficiently.’”


Xcaret is a WUWM producer for Lake Effect.
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