Cases of mysterious respiratory illness sickening dogs reported in Massachusetts

BOSTON — A mysterious illness that causes lasting respiratory disease and pneumonia in dogs has been spreading nationwide and it has now arrived in Massachusetts, officials confirmed Tuesday.

“Whether it’s an actual new organism that’s causing this uptick in cases, we don’t know yet,” said Kiko Bracker, DVM,  Director of Emergency Medicine at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. “There’s not a huge preponderance of illness out there, though.”

Massachusetts, as well as New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island, are now among 14 states where cases of the unusual illness has been reported.

An MSPCA-Angell spokesperson told Boston 25 that they have “seen a few of these cases” as veterinarians continue to work to pin down what’s making the animals sick.

“There are a handful of different organisms that can cause what we call Kennel Cough, and they all have different severities and different clinical courses,” Bracker said. “We can’t tell if this is different from Kennel Cough or a more severe variant of it.”

The clinical course of what’s been dubbed the ‘mystery’ dog illness is unremarkable for most dogs.

“It’s mostly a difficult illness to get through the duration and it makes patients feel bad for a while,” Bracker said. “But fatalities are very uncommon.”

Symptoms of respiratory illness in dogs include coughing, sneezing, nasal or eye discharge, and lethargy. Some cases of pneumonia progress quickly, making dogs very sick within 24 to 36 hours.

That might suggest a viral cause. But researchers at the University of New Hampshire recently found, through genetic sequencing, that a subset of sickened dogs tested positive for a ‘bacterial-like’ organism -- while testing negative for the usual kennel cough suspects -- whether they be bacterial, viral or fungal.

The Associated Press reported that Oregon Department of Agriculture has documented more than 200 cases of the disease since mid-August. Kurt Williams, director of the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Oregon State University, warned pet owners that some dogs have died from the disease.

Williams did urge pet owners not to panic, telling them to ensure their four-legged friends are up to date on their vaccines and to contact their vet if their dog is sick.

David Needle, senior veterinary pathologist at the University of New Hampshire, has been investigating the disease for nearly a year. Needle and his team have studied samples from dogs in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

Needle told the AP that his team has not seen a large increase in dogs dying from the illness but still encouraged pet owners to “decrease contact with other dogs.”

Despite the remote possibility of death, some local dog owners are taking precautions.

“It’s a bad respiratory type of thing, from what I understand,” said Jack Tracy, owner of a 13-year-old Golden Lab named Molly. “I’m trying to keep her away from other dogs. I’m very concerned. I have an elderly dog.”

“They get sick, they cough, they can actually die,” said Alex Arango, as he walked his daughter’s Bichon Frise, Polo, around Jamaica Pond. “We’re just trying to keep him away from other dogs.”

Bracker suggested that might be a prudent course of action -- for now.

“It’s not a bad idea to keep conscious of the company your dog is keeping,” he said.

Experts recommend that pet owners avoid dog parks and letting their pets hang out with dogs they don’t know. Boarding dogs during the holiday season should also be avoided.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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