What You Need to Know About the Mysterious Dog Illness 

Q&A with VetMed researcher investigating the canine respiratory disease sweeping the country 

January 24, 2024 Kimbra Cutlip

If your pup seems a little under the weather, coughing, sneezing, or acting lethargic, don’t brush it aside. There’s a mysterious canine illness spreading throughout the country that can linger for months, causing fever, pneumonia, and in rare cases, death. Veterinarians have yet to find a cure for the disease they’re calling atypical canine respiratory infectious disease (aCRID). 

Assistant Professor of Veterinary Medicine Mostafa Ghanem is working with the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association to analyze samples from sick dogs and help identify the cause of the disease. We asked him what scientists currently know and what dog owners can do to protect their dogs and themselves:

What are the symptoms, and what should dog owners do if they see these signs in their pets?

Dogs infected with the canine respiratory illness present symptoms such as difficulty breathing, coughing, sneezing, nasal and/or eye discharge, loss of appetite, and lethargy. If you notice these signs, immediately contact your veterinarian. Early diagnosis and supportive care may significantly improve outcomes.

What causes this disease and how does it spread?

We still don’t know. It could be a virus, bacteria, fungus, or even a combination. Current evidence suggests it's not caused by common canine respiratory pathogens like canine parainfluenza virus or Bordetella, also known as kennel cough. Investigations are ongoing, but there is no definitive cause identified yet.

The spread is also unclear, though it's suspected to be transmitted through respiratory droplets and aerosols from coughing and sneezing by infected dogs or direct contact with contaminated objects. Dog day-care centers, closed spaces, and other gatherings of dogs may play a role in the spread of the illness.

How dangerous is it, and does it affect different breeds, sizes, or ages of dogs differently?

Many cases present with mild to moderate respiratory symptoms, such as coughing and sneezing that may last six to eight weeks or longer. In some cases the dog may develop chronic pneumonia. In all instances, the disease doesn’t respond to antibiotics or responds only minimally. Fewer cases may show the most severe form of acute pneumonia which can lead to death, often within one to three days. Currently, there is no conclusive evidence of a relation between disease severity and dog breed, age, sex, or size. Still, it is generally advisable for pet owners to be more careful with young puppies, old-aged and immunocompromised dogs.

Are humans affected by the disease?

Currently, there is no evidence of aCRID transmission to humans. However, because we don’t know what the causative agent is, it is generally recommended to thoroughly wash your hands after handling your or other dogs and limit contact with sick dogs.

How is this disease treated?

aCRID doesn't have a specific treatment, as the cause is unknown. Supportive care, including hydration, oxygen therapy, cough suppressants, and antibiotics (if bacterial infection is suspected) is critical. In severe cases, hospitalization might be necessary.

How long is a dog contagious, and how can people help prevent the spread?

It is unclear how long the dogs remain contagious, but generally, like other diseases, we can expect the transmission risk to decrease when the signs recede.

To prevent the spread of the disease, dog owners are advised to minimize their pets' contact with other dogs, particularly in areas like dog parks and daycares, and to avoid communal water and food bowls. 

In the event of illness, it is crucial to isolate the affected pet in a separate room, removing shared bowls, beds, and toys. These precautions play a pivotal role in mitigating the transmission of most diseases and ensuring the well-being of dogs.

Dog owners are also strongly recommended to keep their pet's vaccinations up to date, specifically targeting respiratory diseases such as Bordetella, canine adenovirus type 2, canine influenza, and canine parainfluenza. These vaccinations can help maintain overall health, which significantly bolsters a dog's immune system. Additionally, owners should promptly contact their veterinarian if any symptoms are observed.

How will the study work, and how can dog owners participate? 

We do not work directly with dog owners, but rather with veterinarians who can assess whether a dog and illness fit the study’s inclusion criteria, and can collect an appropriate sample. We have reached out to veterinary hospitals and clinics across Maryland, encouraging them to submit swab samples from dogs displaying aCRID symptoms. We are actively collecting and welcome additional submissions from veterinarians.

Our approach at UMD’s Molecular Epidemiology Laboratory uses advanced metagenomic sequencing to comprehensively analyze all microbial entities present in a sample in hopes of identifying the agents responsible for the illness. Veterinary practitioners presented with dogs exhibiting clinical signs consistent with aCRID are strongly encouraged to initiate diagnostic testing, specifically the Canine Respiratory PCR Panel. This testing should be conducted during the acute phase of the disease and before beginning any treatment. In cases where no causative agent has been identified, practitioners are urged to contribute to our research investigation by contacting us first to discuss if it is possible to test those samples.

We appreciate the collaborative efforts of the veterinary community and the crucial role of dog owners and their veterinarians in advancing our understanding of this mysterious pathogen affecting canine populations.