As an unidentified canine respiratory illness continues to pop up in clusters around the United States — causing symptoms like cough, fever and lethargy, and in more serious cases, hospitalization or death — many dog owners are wondering what steps they should take to keep their pets safe.
Despite the alarming headlines about fatalities, veterinarians are urging pet owners to be careful, but not to panic.
“At this point in time, I don’t think there is reason for extreme alarm,” said Dr. Deborah Silverstein, a professor of small animal emergency and critical care medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Ryan Veterinary Hospital. “I do think it’s a time to be cautious and to stay informed.”
We talked to Dr. Silverstein and other experts about the strategies they recommend (and in some cases, are using in their own homes) to protect dogs’ health.
Know your dog’s risk factors.
Though it is unclear whether the “mystery illness” is a new pathogen or a resurgence of a known bacterial or viral infection, dog owners should ensure their pets are up-to-date on their vaccinations, Dr. Silverstein said.
Be mindful that some dogs are at higher risk for more serious complications if they get sick.
“The animals we really worry about getting severe infections are those that don’t have a good immune system,” Dr. Silverstein said. “So those would be very young animals, especially if they have not had a full series of vaccines, or very old animals, because they’re more likely to have comorbidities or other diseases that may weaken their immune system.”
Brachycephalic or short-nosed breeds, like pugs and French and English bulldogs, also tend to have a harder time clearing respiratory tract infections, Dr. Silverstein said.
Exercise caution around other dogs.
The surest way to keep dogs safe is to isolate them from other dogs, said Dr. Renee McDougall, a specialist surgeon with Bond Vet. She and her husband have a five-year-old pit bull mix, Rupert, who adores walks and sniffing other dogs. But for the past three weeks, she said, the couple have kept him from engaging in any “nose-to-nose greetings.”
“My dog is so sad!” Dr. McDougall admitted.
“We know how this disease typically spreads is through droplets and face-to-face interactions,” she said. “So if we just avoid those scenarios, we’re probably being as safe as we possibly can be.”
But if you rely on doggy day care while you are at work, for instance, or if you intend to board your dog over the holidays, certain measures may help mitigate the risks in group settings.
Doggy day cares or boarding facilities:
Ask about the facility’s vaccine requirements and its screening policies, the two experts said.
“Make sure that they’re following strict guidelines with any dogs that are allowed in the building,” Dr. Silverstein said. “If they show up, and they have a cough or a sneeze, they should not be let in.” Though she cautioned that dogs probably shed the virus before they show any symptoms.
Dr. McDougall recommended asking about the size of the group your dog will be spending time in. Is it, say, 30 dogs running around together? Will different dogs be present every day? Smaller, consistent groupings are better, she said. And ideally, dogs should not share toys or water bowls.
“You’re the dog parent,” Dr. McDougall said, acknowledging that many owners rely on outside facilities to care for their pups. “You decide how much risk you’re willing to take.”
Dog parks are already somewhat controversial, Dr. Silverstein said, though she knows how beloved they can be.
But right now, she said it was “safest to stay away from other dogs whose health status and vaccine status is unknown,” unless you are certain there is “very little incidence of disease” in your area. (Cases have been reported in several states, including Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon and Rhode Island, but the number is growing and the illness is most likely more widespread, experts say.) Some communities have temporarily closed dog parks.
As an alternative, Dr. Silverstein said dog owners might consider having a “play date” with another dog whose health and vaccine status they know — though there is no guarantee of safety.
When in doubt, reach out to your vet.
The vets we spoke to emphasized that pet owners should talk to their veterinarians if they have questions about whether there have been cases locally, or if they need help weighing their pet’s risks.
Contact your veterinarian if you notice your dog coughing or experiencing nasal or eye discharge, Dr. Silverstein said. If your pet is otherwise eating and acting normally, the vet may advise monitoring it at home for 24 to 48 hours or may schedule a telehealth visit, Dr. McDougall said.
Dogs who seem lethargic or who are having difficulty breathing need immediate attention.
Dr. Silverstein and Dr. McDougall each said that veterinary practices were being careful to avoid exposure among patients, and acknowledged that many clinics and animal hospitals were backed up, so finding care may be easier said than done.