17 States Now Reporting Serious Mystery Dog Illness

National concern is growing as a mystery dog respiratory ailment is spreads, but is it a novel superbug or something else?

Updated December 18, 2023
worried looking golden retriever

We don't usually cover breaking news here, but this is one we needed to get out there. A mysterious respiratory illness is hitting dogs all over the place, and it's led to some fatal complications. It's pretty contagious and has been suspected in 17 states so far, but it's still unclear exactly how widespread the illness is because there's no formal reporting process. The root cause is just as uncertain, though experts have a few theories.

Find out which states are dealing with reported cases, what symptoms to watch for, and which dogs are most at risk. Equally important, learn how to take preventive measures to lower the chances of your dog catching this scary respiratory ailment over the holiday. 

How It Starts

According to the New York Times (NYT), this illness initially presents as a cough but can also bring other symptoms like fever, a lack of energy, and a decrease in appetite. It's a stubborn condition that can linger for weeks, and perhaps the most concerning part is that it doesn't react to standard treatments, like antibiotics.

This resistance to treatment can lead to more serious complications, like severe pneumonia, leaving the dog with significant breathing difficulties, reports Time magazine. As the illness progresses, monitoring these symptoms and keeping in close contact with your veterinarian becomes crucial to manage and potentially mitigate more severe health issues.

Early Signs

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), knowing the early signs of this illness, which the organization now refers to as canine infectious respiratory disease complex (CIRDC), is key to being ready to handle it. This condition seems to worsen quickly, so it's crucial to start monitoring your dog as soon as you notice anything unusual.

Being alert to these initial symptoms means you can act fast, seek veterinary care promptly, and potentially prevent the illness from escalating. Early detection not only gives you a head start in dealing with the ailment but also increases the chances of a better outcome. Early signs of this mystery illness include:

  • Fever
  • Weakness
  • Lack of appetite
  • Coughing that doesn't get better on its own after a week or so

  • Sneezing

  • Nasal or eye discharge

  • Blue or purple gums (due to not getting enough oxygen)

Quick Tip

Blue or purple gums in dogs are an emergency unless this is the natural color of your dog's mouth. If you see this in a dog who normally has pink gums, seek urgent medical attention.

Possible Causes of the Mystery Illness in Dogs

man kissing dog

The cause of the illness is unknown. Scientists and veterinarians are working together to determine the cause of the life-threatening mystery illness, and there are a few theories about what could be to blame.

Novel Bacterium

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (UNH) have gotten closer to identifying the cause of the mystery illness, which they suspect is a bacterium. This is interesting, considering experts initially suspected the cause might be viral. 

What’s even more fascinating is that the bacterium identified might be “part of the dog microbiome and has recently developed the capacity to cause disease,” as reported by UNH Today.  The real kicker is that while this bacterium is thought to be novel since cases just started cropping up in August 2023, this laboratory has been investigating the respiratory illness since 2022

Lifestyle Changes & "The Usual Suspects"

Other experts say a new bug is pretty unlikely. Instead, they suspect a combo of common dog illnesses and lifestyle changes since the COVID-19 pandemic are probably to blame. According to the New York Times, “The outbreaks could stem from a surge in what scientists called ‘the usual suspects’ — the suite of viruses and bacteria that are well-documented causes of kennel cough.”

The rise in pet adoptions in 2020, plus the fact that people stopped socializing with their dogs, potentially made the dog population more susceptible to these other common illnesses. Paired with the decrease in promptness of vaccinations due to the veterinary shortage, they speculate these factors all led to the perfect storm that became this mystery illness.

But why aren’t these common bugs being identified as the cause? Diagnostic testing, like PCRs or culture, isn’t typically done right off the bat in veterinary medicine until a pet’s symptoms are severe, and by then, the virus is challenging to detect.

States Affected by the Canine Mystery Illness

Even if your state isn’t on the list, it doesn’t mean your dog isn't at risk. You should still be cautious and take steps to protect your dog. Keep in mind that in each of these states, it all began with just one dog. And similarly, it only takes one infected dog to pass it on to yours. So, staying vigilant and proactive about your dog's health is key, regardless of where you live. 

According to Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine, as of December 4, 2023, the states that have reported this mystery illness include:

  • Oregon
  • Colorado
  • New Hampshire
  • Massachusetts
  • Rhode Island
  • California
  • Indiana
  • Illinois
  • Washington
  • Idaho
  • Georgia
  • Florida
  • Maine
  • Vermont
  • Nevada
  • Maryland
  • Pennsylvania
Need to Know

According to the AVMA, Oregon has had over 200 cases of this mystery illness since the middle of August 2023.  

Challenges in Reporting Cases

Without a national reporting procedure in place, it's really hard to know exactly how many dogs have come down with the respiratory illness. Dr. Rena Carlson, DVM, current AVMA president, tells the New York Times, "Accurate numbers of cases or states affected are impossible to find or predict." As a result, the AVMA has stopped reporting case numbers. 

Dogs at Risk

Of course, this illness poses a risk to all dogs, but those with weaker immune systems and unvaccinated dogs are particularly vulnerable. Dogs that already have health problems, as well as older dogs, tend to be more severely affected if they catch the disease. These dogs often need hospitalization and, unfortunately, in some cases, may even require euthanasia. It's especially crucial for pet owners with senior dogs or those with existing health conditions to be extra cautious.

Prevention and Reducing the Risk

According to Grace Veterinary Clinic, pet parents should focus on prevention. It's really important to keep your dog away from places where lots of other dogs hang out. I know it's a bummer, but avoiding places like dog parks, kennels, and doggy daycare is crucial for now. It's all about reducing the chances of your dog catching this illness from others.

Vaccinations for Optimal Health

Veterinarians are recommending dogs be up-to-date on vaccinations to help fight against the illness. This may help if the mystery illness is associated with an illness the dog's body has developed antibodies for. According to Colorado State University, the recommended vaccinations to reduce respiratory illnesses include "Bordetella, Adenovirus 2, and the parainfluenza vaccine, combined with the injectable influenza H3N2 vaccine."

Questions to Ask Your Veterinarian

If you do need to bring your dog to the veterinarian and worry about this condition, figuring out where to start can be challenging, especially since the exact cause of the illness isn't known yet. To help guide your conversation and get a clearer picture, here are some questions you can ask:

  • Treatment options: Since we don't know what's causing this illness, what treatment options do you recommend? 
  • If medication is prescribed: Are there any side effects of the prescribed medication I should be aware of?
  • Worsening: How can I tell if my dog's health is getting worse? What happens if my dog gets pneumonia? 
  • Wait time: If my dog doesn't get better, how long should I wait before bringing them back?
  • Follow-up: When should we schedule a follow-up appointment to check on my dog’s progress?
  • Dog's diet: Should I make any changes to my dog’s diet or daily routine during their recovery?
  • Hydration: How much water should my individual dog be drinking?
  • Dogs in the same household: My other dog isn't showing symptoms but has been right next to this dog. Should they be separated now, or can they stay together since the other dog may have already been exposed?
  • Supplements: Are there any supplements I could give my dog to help boost their immune system? 
  • Hospitalization: At what point would you recommend hospitalization? 

Staying Informed

Staying alert and informed is really important for keeping your pets safe during this outbreak. Scientists are working hard to figure out what's causing this disease. Meanwhile, we can all help by doing things to stop this illness from spreading. Taking care of our dogs' health and following safety steps can keep them safe and reduce the effects of this concerning ailment. 

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17 States Now Reporting Serious Mystery Dog Illness