Local veterinarians are encouraging pet owners to be cautious but not to panic over recent reports of a mysterious respiratory illness that has been found in dogs in at least 14 states, including Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire.
Boston-area veterinarians said they have received a surge of calls from concerned dog owners following media reports about the “mystery illness,” which in some cases has developed into pneumonia and even led to death. They said they are trying to ease owners’ fears, noting that the number of respiratory cases is rising but mostly in line with past years.
Veterinarians said they are encouraging owners to take the usual precautions to keep their pets healthy, such as getting them vaccinated and keeping them away from other dogs that are sick.
“There are respiratory viruses, bacterial infections that we see normally every year, and a subset do become pneumonia, but the kind of hysteria level, I think, may not be appropriate for what we’re seeing here, which seems kind of our normal fall respiratory season,” said Dr. Brian Bourquin, owner of Boston Veterinary Clinic.
Some said the questions they’ve heard remind them of early reactions to COVID-19.
“It’s hard to say whether or not it’s overblown, but I don’t think that everybody needs to panic and keep their dogs inside,” said Dr. Camille Alander, medical director for BondVet, which operates six Boston-area locations. “I’ve had clients recently tell me they’re not even walking their dogs anymore, and to me that’s overkill.”
Little is known about the illness, and it remains unclear whether the cases reported across the country are all the same disease, specialists said.
There is no definitive test for the illness, which presents symptoms similar to kennel cough but can last longer and progress to pneumonia. Researchers say the disease has not been responsive to antibiotics. Common symptoms include coughing, sneezing, nasal or eye discharge, lethargy, and loss of appetite, specialists said.
While the illness may seem new, researchers at the University of New Hampshire’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory began studying it more than a year ago after getting reports of an uptick in respiratory cases that were lasting longer than normal and were unresponsive to standard treatment, said Dr. David Needle, the lab’s chief pathologist.
In June, the lab issued a report saying it had identified a small portion of the genome of an uncharacterized bacteria that may be causing the illness. The bacteria was found in 21 of 30 samples taken from dogs in New Hampshire after initial testing didn’t reveal any known pathogens.
“It might just be part of the dog’s respiratory microbiome, and it just hasn’t been characterized before . . . or it could be something that’s not from dogs and has jumped to dogs and is causing disease,” Needle said.
State agencies are encouraging veterinarians to send samples to the UNH lab, which has received an influx of specimens.
“We’re going to be running through those in the next couple of weeks and will have a lot more to say about what we find in these samples,” Needle said.
Massachusetts officials are trying to collect data but do not currently know the number of cases in the state. The Department of Agricultural Resources “is aware of this issue and is working with our colleagues in neighboring states to better understand the factors at play,” a spokesperson said.
The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals encouraged dog owners concerned about their pet’s health to avoid dog parks or other areas where dogs congregate “out of an abundance of caution.”
Specialists with the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts said they are monitoring reports of the illness. “While we are hearing of an increased number of cases in the news, no new disease has been identified and these reports have been around for over a year,” the university said in a statement.
Veterinarians said there is always some risk a dog may catch ill if it goes to a doggy daycare or a boarding facility, as respiratory illness is most common when dogs are huddled indoors. They encouraged pet owners to send their dogs only to places that require vaccinations, or, better yet, find a dog sitter.
“If you can have your dog watched at home, in the safety of his home, in the comfort of his home, that’s always ideal,” Bourquin said.
Dr. Jeffrey Evans, medical director for Boston Animal Hospital, said veterinarians see respiratory cases in hospitals “on a daily basis, and a simple cough can have a long list of differentials attached to it.”
“I would be surprised if we don’t see an increase frankly,” Evans said in an email, “but it’s important for us to not panic and exhaust our veterinary resources as soon as our dogs cough.”
Nick Stoico can be reached at email@example.com.