What’s Behind the Reported Uptick in Canine Respiratory Illness? Experts Weigh In

An uptick in canine respiratory illnesses has been observed throughout portions of the United States and Canada. Is this due to a new bug, or is it the usual viral suspects popping up in larger numbers than usual? And if it’s the latter, is there a reason behind this? Pet insurance company Trupanion recently held a webinar with several veterinary experts to get to the bottom of these questions.

Moderated by Trupanion’s Chief Veterinary Officer Dr. Steve Weinrauch, the discussion included Dr. Michael Lappin, veterinary internist and director of the Center for Companion Animal Studies at Colorado State University School of Veterinary Medicine; Dr. Scott Weese, another veterinary internist and Chief of Infection Control at Ontario Veterinary College’s Health Sciences Centre; and Dr. Carrie Jurney, veterinary neurologist and president of Not One More Vet, a wellness charity for veterinarians.

Sleeping shih tzu

Drs. Lappin and Weese are from two areas in which Trupanion’s respiratory treatment claims have been going up recently. According to the company’s year-over-year data, there’s been a 36.46% jump in respiratory-related claims in Colorado this year, as well as a 25.17% increase in Ontario. Other notable spikes have been observed in Quebec, which has seen a 70.73% increase; Oregon, where claims are up 61.86%; and Nevada, where there’s been a 43.05% jump.

When looking at similar figures from January 2021 through October 2023, Dr. Weese said, “I think there are a couple of noteworthy things here. One is, if you try to sketch a line, it’s going up, and if we plot that line, it’s maybe going up 60, 70%. So I think that fits with the observation that we’ve had… we are seeing this gradual increase over a while and I’ve been getting more calls about respiratory disease for months or years… We also see how it’s up and down, like we normally have these waves.”

While examining the trends in the increase, though, he believes it has more to do with “dog factors” than any new bug, but he said there does still need to be more research into the possibility. Some of these “dog factors” could be pandemic-related, like disrupted vet care, less exposure to typical bugs with more time at home and less time at doggy day care, less worry of vaccination for pet parents because their dogs haven’t been as exposed to others over the past few years, and long wait times for the vet that make it difficult to get in.

Sleeping dog draped with blanket

Dr. Weese said strange trends like the one we’re seeing now tend to just be the “usual subjects” behaving a bit differently, and there could be a combination of these factors at play. With extra media attention on these new cases, people may also be more apt to head to the vet out of concern, even if they wouldn’t have done so normally. He pointed out, too, that not every area is seeing this trend.

He explained, “One of the really noteworthy things is there are a lot of states or provinces that are in gray, which means there’s no increase. So it’s not like something has come in and it’s swept across North America, which wouldn’t have to happen if it’s a new bug, but you’d expect a little more of a pattern like that.”

With a new bug, Dr. Weese noted, there would likely be a much larger spike due to easy transmission and untrained immune systems.

Dogs sleeping on bed

While the group wasn’t convinced any new viruses are behind the uptick, they have noticed more cases of severe illness, as well. According to Dr. Lappin, the vet school clinic at Colorado State University has seen about a 50% increase in dogs developing pneumonia compared to last year. For Dr. Weese, he believes this is attributable to more dogs being sick overall, with likely a similar percentage of overall cases leading to serious illness as would typically be seen.

An area of study that the group says could provide more insight is how many unvaccinated dogs are getting ill, versus vaccinated dogs. Unfortunately, they pointed out that there’s not much vaccine surveillance for companion animals, so the data would be tough to come by.

The group encouraged vaccinations to provide extra protection, particularly for dogs that are at higher risk of severe outcomes, like senior pups, those with pre-existing health issues, and brachycephalic or flat-faced dogs, which are more apt to suffer from respiratory issues. As Dr. Jurney pointed out, French bulldogs are a very commonly owned flat-faced breed, which could also relate to the uptick in cases.

Sleeping French bulldog

If you’re worried about your own pup, common symptoms of canine respiratory illnesses include sneezing, coughing, and red, runny eyes. When things get worse than that, though, that’s when you may want to head to the vet.

Dr. Lappin explained, “Where you would be concerned, obviously, is just like when you would probably go to urgent care, is if you’re really down in the dumps or you have a fever and you’re not eating, if you lose your appetite.”

Other serious symptoms include trouble breathing, fever, or elevated respiratory rate.

To prevent spread, the group also had some tips: Don’t take your sick dog to events or to day care where they could infect others, keep your dog vaccinated if they are regularly around other dogs at places like day care or the groomer, and day care owners should stop sick dogs from coming in.

You can find more information here.

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