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What Vermont dog owners need to know about a new canine respiratory disease in the region

An American Miniature Shepherd dog, with brow, white and gray fur, is shown being cared for a veterinarian wearing pink scrubs and a veterinary technician at a veterinary clinic.
Mr Vito
Dozens of dogs in Vermont have gotten sick with a poorly-understood “canine infectious respiratory disease complex" since January.

A new and mostly unknown illness is affecting dogs in Vermont. Veterinary experts are calling it “canine infectious respiratory disease complex,” and its symptoms have been documented in dozens of dogs in Vermont, New Hampshire and New York. We're getting the latest on the canine disease with an emergency veterinarian.

Our guest is:

  • Mallory Sullivan, an associate small-animal emergency veterinarian at BEVS, the Burlington Emergency and Veterinary Specialists

The conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mikaela Lefrak: When did you first become aware of this disease?

Mallory Sullivan: We've really been tracking the upper respiratory infections through last year. But my colleagues and I in the emergency department recognized that it was becoming more severe, in the end of the summer, early fall, and the end of 2022. So we got together and we decided that we needed to start tracking this to see if we could figure out what was affecting our community. So we actually started tracking these cases in the middle of January.

And how many dogs have you now seen with this disease at BEVS?

We've seen roughly 30 cases that we've been tracking, it's very possible that there are more, and I know that my colleagues in general practice have also been seeing increased cases in their practices as well. So about 30, since the middle of January,

I'm sure that dog owners must be very scared coming in with their pets, and they don't know what this illness is.

It is scary. And this is uniquely scary to us as veterinarians too, because it's more severe than it has been historically. In the past, when dogs come in with a honking cough, we often would discuss that it's probably a self-limiting virus or a bacterial infection, like Bordetella, commonly known as kennel cough. And those dogs would get better on their own, and sometimes we would even start them on antibiotics, and they would get better and there were no issues.

But we are seeing a large number of cases now that are coming in with progressive pneumonia. So, signs that started as just upper respiratory, but then progressed to a dog that's very lethargic, won't eat, with high fevers and difficulty breathing. And so that's what's really been been making us making us nervous as clinicians because they're sicker than they have been before.

Do we know what's behind the kind of somewhat sudden jump in cases?

We don't, at this point. We've been submitting a lot of viral tests and PCR panels, and they're mostly coming back negative, which is frustrating. But we also know it can sometimes be really difficult to nail down exactly what the agent is. And it's possible that it's bacterial, because that's a little bit harder for us to test. It's a little bit more involved. So unfortunately, we do not know the name of the agent that's responsible, it's very possible that there are multiple, and that's why we call it a respiratory disease complex, because sometimes it's a mixture of bacteria and viruses. So unfortunately, we don't know specifically at this time.

Now, I know you just mentioned some of the symptoms, but but let's let's talk through them again to folks know what to look out for in their own pets.

Most of the time, it's presented as like a honking cough. Sometimes they'll be hacking up white foam, that's called a terminal retch. And they'll have some iron nose discharge that that might be clear, but it might be green or yellow in color. And those are classic upper respiratory signs.

But what I really want owners to watch for in a dog that maybe starts to cough is any evidence of pneumonia, which would be a more lethargic dog that's laying around. One that refuses food and has some difficulty breathing.

So, the takeaway is that it may start out as upper respiratory with just a cough, but but it can get worse and I need owners to really look at or watch their pets closely.

Is this a illness that seems just to be hitting dogs? Have you seen other types of animals with these types of symptoms?

This is specifically dogs. Fortunately, our kitty friends are not affected.

I also know that you, you want to make it clear that this is not kennel cough, which is a pretty common respiratory disease in dogs that spread by a bacteria, right?

I think that the phrasing of "kennel cough" I just want to get away from, if we can, because I don't think it, there's a lot of things that that doesn't include. And so I say upper respiratory disease complex, because there are viruses that are excluded when we say kennel cough, most often, kennel cough is is associated with Bordetella infections. And that's a bacteria. So I think it just doesn't encompass the full complex of the disease.

This is really affecting dogs in Vermont, where else are you seeing these symptoms pop up?

We have reached out to Cornell to help us with our viral isolation test. And so they're seeing a lot of cases in New York.

I have colleagues in New Hampshire that are also seeing large number of cases. And there are veterinarians in general practice that are also trying to do some tests to try and figure out what this is. But unfortunately, we as a collective have not nailed down a single agent at this time. So I would say its generally affecting New England.

I'm also curious what steps a dog owner can and should take to reduce their dog's chances of catching this? I'm guessing maybe there are some things that people can do to make sure their pets stay safe.

One of the important things is making sure that your dogs are up to date on their vaccines. And while these vaccines do not prevent the illness entirely, the goal is to try and prevent the serious illness or the progression to pneumonia and the need for hospitalization. So, that would be like canine influenza Bordetella, which is that kennel cough, and something commonly called the distemper vaccine, but that's actually a combination vaccine. So, making sure that your pets are up to date on those.

The other thing is just be aware. When you bring your dog out in public spaces, if they have exposure to other dogs, it's possible that they could be at risk for contracting this infection. But we just need to watch our dogs closely in those cases, and if they do develop clinical signs, that's okay. I just encourage owners to bring them into the veterinarian sooner rather than later, just because these cases are progressing more than they have historically. So, just being quick about getting them seen is another recommendation.

You know, a lot of these dogs, unfortunately, require hospitalization. And I know that that can get pretty pricey. So, as an emergency veterinarian, I encourage all pet owners, as soon as they get their puppies and kitties, is to get pet insurance, because that really helps take some of that burden off of the pet owners in the time of crisis and need. So, that would be a huge recommendation across the board.

Broadcast live on Wednesday, March 8, 2023, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or check us out on Instagram.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.