By Michelle Cassell
North Carolina recently became the 15th state to report cases of a mysterious respiratory pathogen spreading among dogs. It has now been found in Cary, NC. The latest local information comes from Dr. Bradley J. Waffa, MSPH, DVM, located at Truss Vet Urgent Care in Cary. Since the pathogen has not been defined, he explained, the disease should be described as a “respiratory syndrome.”
Dr. Waffa told TLR in a personal interview on Tuesday that the number of cases he has seen has gone from none to eight the day after Thanksgiving and now five to six per day. “ I haven’t even published this yet, but based on the uptick in cases we’ve seen here and what I’m hearing from colleagues and local ERs, it is my personal opinion that the new canine respiratory illness is definitely here,” he said.
“Does that mean it’s everywhere? Does that mean every respiratory case in this mystery bug? No, of course not. But we have seen an increase in respiratory cases and we and other local hospitals have certainly seen some atypical cases.”
No reports in Orange County
Tenille Fox, Communications Specialist for Orange County Animal Services, said,
“All I can currently say about this is that we are aware of what’s happening. And, due to canine influenza recently circulating in our area and the recent closing of Wake Animal Services due to canine influenza, we are still on high alert for any signs of respiratory illness in dogs at our shelter. And of course we screen as best we can when dogs enter our shelter. Currently, we do not have any suspected cases of flu or this mystery respiratory illness. So, we will work as hard as we can to keep anything from spreading between dogs in our care.”
A short survey made by TLR of seven Chapel Hill veterinarians has not found any documented cases.
The Green Beagle Lodge located in Chapel Hill and Pittsboro put out a notification on Thursday morning: “We have yet to experience confirmed cases of the unknown illness at either of our locations. At Green Beagle Lodge, we take these communicable diseases very seriously. We are committed to the prevention of spreading these illnesses, as well as reporting and investigating any suspected illness within our community. We continue to work closely with our veterinarians as well as the Department of Agriculture to ensure we are participating in best practices and protocols for continuing the prevention of these illnesses within our facilities. As always, we will continue to report on the progression of these illnesses as necessary. At this time, we have not seen evidence of this undefined respiratory illness in our area, nor do we have reason to believe it has affected our community.”
What are the symptoms?
According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture (where the cases began) the cases present themselves as:
- A chronic mild nuisance cough with a prolonged duration (six-eight weeks) and unresponsive to antibiotics
- A chronic pneumonia that is minimally responsive to or unresponsive to antibiotics
- Acute pneumonia that rapidly becomes severe and can be fatal within 24-36 hours despite intervention: this is much less common, but is the most concerning aspect of the illness
The disease symptoms closely resemble those seen in kennel cough – sneezing, coughing, nasal and ocular discharge – but unlike short-lived kennel cough we are seeing this disease drag on for weeks and it is unresponsive to normal treatments such as antibiotics, Waffa explained.
“While canine infectious respiratory disease can be caused by many different or combinations of organisms, most of these sick dogs have tested negative for all of the usual suspects,” said Waffa. Hence the mystery and the certainty this is not canine flu.
What researchers have discovered
It has been suggested that this could be COVID 19, but the researchers at the New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory have tested their cases and all have been negative.
“The sequence data has revealed a non-culturable, bacterial-like organism, similar to Mycoplasma in a subset of the respiratory samples. With any investigation of this nature it is difficult to differentiate correlation and causation with the detection of DNA sequences and agents”, said Dr. David Needle from the New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in his report. The New Hampshire lab is taking the lead in the research on the illness. The full report can be found here. Early media reports that the bacterium has been isolated are false.
The report is hopeful, “It is important to note that this is a preliminary finding, and under normal circumstances of a study we would not release these findings….There are multiple experiments that need to be run in order to clarify the causation.” Needle said it is in the best interest of animal health to release this information as we continue to validate these initial findings.
“At this point it does appear that the bacteria we have identified is a potential causative agent,” said Needle.
Waffa (who also has a background in public health) explained how the research process works and it’s not always definitive, “I sympathize with the position these researchers are in. Everyone is desperately searching for answers and they don’t want to withhold anything meaningful, but it’s very common for these types of findings to be dead ends. Our bodies are loaded with normal bacterial microflora we’re only just beginning to identify and understand, and the correlative finding of one new non-culturable organism identified after intense scrutiny is probably not the answer we’re looking for
“The organism that it seems to be most closely related to, or at least structurally related to, is an organism called Mycoplasma, and it’s a little bit of a unique organism in that one,” said Waffa.
“It does not have a cell wall, which makes it a little harder for most of the antibiotics that we use to target, and it can be found in dogs that don’t have the disease. So that’s another thing that makes it a little challenging right now. They haven’t given a name to this. They’ve not confirmed that this is the causative agent. But I think we’re starting to see a lot of evidence that this is probably not a viral disease,” he said.
To diagnose a viral disease in a dog, veterinarians use a type of testing called PCRs. It seems more and more likely that this is probably bacterial. The fact that they’re not able to grow this, even in New Hampshire where they’ve got samples, suggests that it’s a pretty unusual organism that we’re not used to dealing with.
Transfer of the illness is from droplet transmission (as in one dog coughing next to another) or sometimes airborne which is less common for bacterial infections.
It comes from contact – toys, water bowls, or other inanimate objects shared between dogs that organisms can stick to. Humans cannot contract it or spread it.
What can dog owners do to protect their pets
Recommendations from Dr. Waffa and his Truss Vet colleagues: avoid boarding your dog; avoid traveling with your dog; walk your dog judiciously; avoid dog parks and dog daycares; practice good hygiene; and make sure your dog is up-to-date on all vaccines.
“That’s forming the basis for our recommendations right now – avoid dog parks and avoid boarding facilities, because you get kind of all three – shared water bowls; shared stagnant air; and dogs in close proximity to each other, coughing and sharing bugs. So it’s a triple threat, unfortunately,” said Waffa.
Waffa does not want to create panic. “We don’t want to prematurely report that we’re seeing this atypical disease, especially when we see a lot of respiratory disease this time of year.”
Most cases are drawn-out symptoms of cough (sometimes up to eight weeks), decreased energy, decreased appetite, fever and increased respiratory rate and nasal discharge. “But there does seem to be this fortunately smaller subset of dogs that become acutely, very sick, very fast, develop pneumonia, and then don’t respond to treatment and die,” said Waffa.
They have not lost any at Truss Vet. As an urgent care facility, if there’s anything that is truly life-threatening and unstable, they refer those patients. “We have had a couple that were sick enough and unstable enough that they required overnight oxygen therapy, and we have sent those to the local ERs.”
Waffa does not want dog owners to panic. He is hoping to get the word out and have an educated public. “We are recommending that people be vigilant and not ignore warning signs, and communicate with their veterinarian if they’re seeing problems early on. The latest news on the canine respiratory disease outbreak can be found at trussvet.com.
Michelle Cassell is a seasoned reporter who has covered everything from crime to hurricanes and local politics to human interest over the course of 35 years. As managing editor, she hopes to encourage writers of a wide range of backgrounds and interests in TLR’s coverage of Southern Orange County news.