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What to know about the mysterious dog illnesses in Oregon

FILE: Owners bring their dogs to a park in Los Angeles. Veterinary laboratories in several states, including Oregon, Colorado and New Hampshire, are investigating an unusual respiratory illness in dogs that causes lasting illness and doesn't respond to antibiotics.
Richard Vogel
FILE: Owners bring their dogs to a park in Los Angeles. Veterinary laboratories in several states, including Oregon, Colorado and New Hampshire, are investigating an unusual respiratory illness in dogs that causes lasting illness and doesn't respond to antibiotics.

Mysterious respiratory illnesses are sickening dogs in several states, including in Oregon. Veterinary experts aren't sure what's causing dogs to become sick or even how to treat them.

OPB editor April Ehrlich has been covering the outbreak in Oregon. She sat down with OPB “All Things Considered” host Crystal Ligori to discuss what we know so far about the illnesses, and how we can protect our pets.

Crystal Ligori: So veterinarians across Oregon have filed hundreds of case reports to the state describing a mysterious respiratory illness among dogs. What are they saying?

April Ehrlich: They’re describing dogs being sick with serious respiratory problems for weeks, sometimes developing chronic pneumonia, and a few dogs have died. So little is known that we can’t even really say it’s a new disease. It’s more likely a new pathogen that’s causing dogs to develop respiratory illnesses with symptoms mimicking kennel cough. But kennel cough isn’t just one disease. The technical name is canine respiratory disease complex. It’s basically an umbrella term for coughing illnesses.

Ligori: Kind of like when we say we have a cold?

Ehrlich: Yes, it is sort of like that. Dogs usually have other symptoms as well, like sneezing, runny nose and eyes, tiredness, loss of appetite and fever. But there are several viruses and bacteria that cause kennel cough. Veterinarians can usually identify the cause through a physical exam or in some cases running a test like a nasal swab, then they can come up with a treatment. But veterinarians have recently run into cases where dogs aren’t responding to the normal types of treatment, like antibiotics. They don’t know what’s causing these dogs’ respiratory symptoms, and because of that, they don’t know how to treat them.

Ligori: And is Oregon like the ground zero for this potential new pathogen?

Ehrlich: Well, Oregon has gotten the most attention because of initial news reports, but a handful of other states are reporting cases, as well. For instance, New Hampshire state officials issued a statement about a mysterious canine respiratory illness last year. I also learned that Oregon hosted an event this summer that could have been a super spreader. That’s when the Golden Retriever Club of America held its national dog show in Albany. Hundreds of golden retrievers from across the country came to Oregon for multiple days of indoor competitions.

I spoke to Dr. Ann Hubbs, a veterinarian who’s on the club’s health committee. Here’s how she describes the event.

But she says this year was devastating for several members whose dogs became seriously sick with respiratory diseases. Shortly after the show, some spread illnesses to other dogs at home. She doesn’t have specific numbers, but Hubbs said some show dogs died.

Ligori: That sounds really scary for dog owners. So what should we be doing to protect our pets?

Ehrlich: It’s definitely scary. As a dog owner myself, I totally get it. Pets are family. But unsurprisingly, a lot of misinformation is being spread online. I’ve seen Facebook groups where people are self diagnosing their dogs and sharing theories about potential treatments or causes. The fact is, we just don’t know what’s behind these outbreaks. Just because a dog has a cough, it doesn’t mean it has this new illness. And veterinarians say treatments for coughs can vary widely. The best way to get the best treatment for your dog is through your veterinarian, not from an online stranger. Experts say pet owners could remain vigilant, but they don’t need to panic. It might be a good idea to avoid mass gatherings of dogs when possible, like at dog parks or boarding facilities, and avoid shared water bowls. And if your dog starts showing symptoms, contact your veterinarian right away.

Ligori: So veterinarians don’t know what’s causing the illness, but what are they doing to try and find out locally?

Ehrlich: The Oregon Department of Agriculture is working with a veterinary laboratory at Oregon State University. Pathologists there have done just about all the testing they could do, and they still haven’t come up with answers. So they’ve sent nasal swab samples to a federal lab for further testing. Other states have sent their own samples as well. The U.S. Department of Agriculture lab will study the DNA from those samples, and that should help them determine a potential pathogen at the root of these illnesses, but it’s not clear when that work will be done.
Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

April Ehrlich is an editor and reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, she was a news host and reporter at Jefferson Public Radio.