Canine Respiratory Disease

Key Takeaways

  • The exact cause is unknown at this time. Although Rhode Island has had multiple reports of canine respiratory disease that is consistent with what is being reported elsewhere, we do not yet know the cause of this illness or, indeed, if it’s the same disease that is harming dogs in other states. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (NHVDL) – serving as a clearinghouse for New England states with dogs showing signs of the illness – do not know if it is bacterial or viral. Nobody knows if this is a new disease or a worse version of an existing disease.
  • The illness appears to affect only dogs. At this point, evidence suggests that this infection has been limited to dogs. There have not been reports of people or other animals, like cats, being sickened. Owners should promptly call their veterinarians if their dogs show any signs of respiratory infection, including cough, fever, lethargy, poor appetite, nasal discharge, or discharge from the eyes.
  • Dog owners should avoid unnecessary exposure. In the same way that people spread germs and illnesses by interacting with other people, dogs transmit the disease when congregating with other dogs. Dog owners should ensure their dogs are up-to-date on all vaccinations and prevent exposure by avoiding congregate settings like dog parks, where many germs are spread. If your dog becomes sick, seek prompt veterinary care.
  • DEM is monitoring suspected cases reported by veterinarians. The State Veterinarian's Office became aware of the disease by veterinarians reporting the signs of numerous respiratory cases. The State Veterinarian encourages this kind of reporting to continue and appreciates hearing from veterinarians who are on the front lines of protecting our pets.
A fiesty chihuahua named Buttercup
Listen up, dog owners!

Canine Respiratory Disease FAQs

What is the disease?

Although veterinarians, epidemiologists, and researchers around the country are making progress toward a diagnosis, we have yet to determine the exact cause of the illness. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (NHVDL) – serving as a clearinghouse for New England states with dogs showing signs of the illness – do not know it is bacterial or viral. Nobody knows if this is a new disease or a worse version of an existing disease. UNH researchers are using genetic sequencing of samples from around 70 dogs in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts to identify a part of the genome of previously unidentified bacteria that may be causing the illness. Thus far, the sequencing hasn’t revealed any known pathogens. “[Signs] of infection in dogs include a cough that can linger for several weeks, runny eyes, and sneezing,” NHVDL states. “A very small subset of dogs has died after a long bout of this illness that is then complicated or superimposed with severe acute pneumonia.” Whatever it is, the disease causes more severe illness and carries higher resistance to antibiotics than typical respiratory infections. Rhode Island is one of at least 10 states nationwide to have reported cases. However, we reiterate that no one knows the cause, if the cases in the Northeast are caused by the same agent as those, for example, in the Northwest, or even if all the regional cases have the same cause.

Is it contagious?

Yes, it appears to be highly contagious. In the same way that people spread germs and illnesses by interacting with other people, dogs transmit the disease when congregating with other dogs. DEM has begun an outreach campaign to educate dog owners on how to prevent transmission of the disease.

Are some breeds more susceptible to contracting the illness than others?

It does not seem to be a breed-specific illness, but researchers are still analyzing the epidemiological data to see if this can be determined.

How do I keep my dog safe?

Although no pathogen has been identified as the cause of this disease, DEM recommends the same preventive measures as for any canine respiratory infection. First, avoid unnecessary contact with other dogs. Second, ensure your dog is up to date on all vaccinations, including those recommended by your veterinarian that protect against various respiratory illnesses. Third, if your dog becomes sick, seek prompt veterinary care. We advise against bringing dogs to congregate settings like dog parks, where many germs are spread, or into stores where pets are allowed. Avoid needless risks of exposure. We understand that some people may need to kennel their dogs for work or travel. If it is necessary to do so, make sure to consult with your veterinarian beforehand to confirm your dog is properly vaccinated. DEM recommends against dogs commingling with other dogs until the cause of the disease is better understood. Owners should promptly call their veterinarians if their dogs show any signs of respiratory infection, including cough, fever, lethargy, poor appetite, nasal discharge, or discharge from the eyes. Delays in obtaining an accurate diagnosis and treatment may result in a worse outcome for the pet and owner.

Can people or other animals be affected by this disease?

At this point, evidence suggests that this infection has been limited to dogs. There have not been reports of people or other animals, like cats, being sickened.

How can municipalities, animal shelters, kennels, and pet shops help?

If communities have municipal dog parks, it will help if they post signage notifying users that an unknown canine respiratory illness is present in Rhode Island and that anyone using the park should understand the risks to their dogs. Outdoor facilities with natural soil surfaces cannot be disinfected, so these facilities may harbor infectious agents even when dogs are not present. Without knowing what the infectious agent is, we don’t know how long it can persist in the environment before it is inactivated. Indoor facilities such as pounds, shelters, rescues, kennels, doggy daycare centers, and pet shops should consult with their facility veterinarian to discuss proper cleaning and disinfection procedures in these congregate settings.

How can veterinarians continue to help?

Rhode Island has disease regulations that require the reporting of two respiratory viruses found in dogs: canine distemper and canine influenza.

However, because this undiagnosed disease hasn't been linked with a specific cause, state regulations are likely insufficient to require reporting. Nonetheless, the State Veterinarian's Office became aware of the disease by veterinarians reporting the signs of numerous respiratory cases. The State Veterinarian encourages this kind of reporting to continue and appreciates hearing from veterinarians who are on the front lines of protecting our pets. For information on epidemiological research efforts, please visit the NHVDL website by clicking here.