UPDATE: “Mystery” Disease or “Atypical” Kennel Cough

The “mystery” respiratory illness plaguing canines in a dozen states have veterinarians and pathologists at the state and federal levels wondering whether dogs are actually dealing with a truly novel disease. As dogs experiencing the respiratory illness are showing signs consistent with Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease Complex (CIRDC, aka “Kennel Cough”), the theory that an atypical presentation of this common illness might actually be to blame.

Note: Being a disease complex, it’s important to keep in mind there isn’t just one pathogen capable of causing CIRDC; instead, there are a number of different bacterial and viral culprits resulting in respiratory disease ranging from a mild cough to severe and life-threatening pneumonia. Identifying which pathogen is to blame is important when determining what diagnostic test(s) and treatment(s) to recommend.

Those skeptical of an emerging (novel) disease wonder if there’s actually an increase of CIRDC cases. “The lack of a centralized reporting system means it’s not possible to confirm that there is a spike in CIRDC incidence or severity,” reports the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. UF CVM goes on to say, “The intense media coverage of a “mystery disease” may be raising awareness and discussion about CIRDC cases that would otherwise be managed as usual.”

Regardless of cause, current and retrospective reports of illness are surfacing in other states. Cases consistent with those originally reported only in US coastal states have started to pop up in Colorado, where vets have identified multiple cases of aggressive, nonresponsive respiratory disease in high-volume areas (i.e., boarding facilities, doggy day cares, dog parks, etc). According to an article published by Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, “Clinical findings and tests completed to date suggest that most dogs with the unusual syndrome have a virus that primarily targets the respiratory system, leading to secondary bacterial infection and pneumonia in affected dogs.” While this doesn’t rule out the possibility of something new, these findings remain consistent with an atypical presentation of CIRDC.

What’s Currently Being Done?

Researchers and veterinarians continue to search for an emerging or increasingly virulent pathogen. UF College of Veterinary Medicine’s Shelter Medicine Programs is paying special attention to highly contagious pneumovirus, Streptococcus equi subsp zooepidemicus, and H3N2 Canine Influenza Virus (CIV), which are notoriously problematic in the shelter systems and- in the case of CIV- show circuits. Because these pathogens are most common in shelters, many veterinarians who see privately owned animals might not have included them on the list of potential diagnoses for a family pet presenting with pneumonia. Afterall, a favorite vet school phrase every young veterinarian hears repeatedly is, “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” Why spend the client’s money running diagnostic tests to detect metaphorical zebras when there are so many “horses” running around?

What Can Dog Owners Do?

As research continues, please be vigilant! If your dog begins showing signs of respiratory disease (ie, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, etc) please contact your veterinarian immediately! Kansas State University’s Veterinary Diagnostic Lab recognizes the challenging nature of diagnosis, and is now testing samples from dogs with respiratory infections free of charge. However, samples are only beneficial if collected shortly after the onset of the disease (well before the clinical signs have resolved). Please talk to your veterinarian for more information on how to identify early stages of respiratory illness in your dog.


UF CVM Shelter Medicine Program:  https://sheltermedicine.vetmed.ufl.edu/2023/11/27/mysterious-respiratory-disease/#:~:text=Veterinarians%20are%20reporting%20an%20increased,negative%20for%20known%20canine%20pathogens.

Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine: https://cvmbs.source.colostate.edu/respiratory-illness-canine/