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Mystery dog illness sweeps the nation

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Photo by Mike Blake / Reuters
Photo by Mike Blake / Reuters

Pet owners are rattled by the news of a mysterious dog illness with COVID-19-like symptoms. First appearing in Oregon in the middle of August, this disease has now spread to over 14 states, including Washington, and cases continue to rise. Oregon has seen over two hundred cases in just the last four months.

The contagion begins with a cough, similar to Bordetella (commonly known as "kennel cough"). However, unlike that, the cough is not easily treated by antibiotics and worsens within 24 to 48 hours. Several owners have reported that their healthy, active dogs faded into lethargy within a day. Some required respirators. Several fatalities were also reported, though the exact numbers are unknown, because most states do not track them. Those who have died showed signs of severe pneumonia. Vets have also noted that dogs with preexisting conditions, older dogs, and those who are overweight are the most vulnerable.

There is little known about the disease, but vets are trying to understand it as quickly as possible. Although they still don't know how it spreads, professionals suspect close contact with other dogs is the reason for the disease's rapid advancement. They anticipate a spike in cases as the holiday season and travel continues.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) released a statement earlier this year addressing the disease and what scientists know about it. According to the ODA, the disease begins with a mild to moderate cough, which can last from six to eight weeks and does not improve when antibiotics are used. Symptoms also include sneezing, nasal and eye discharge, lethargy, trouble breathing, wheezing, and blue or purple gums (a sign of poor oxygen circulation). The disease can progress to chronic, antibiotic-resistant pneumonia. In the most severe cases, the pneumonia can become fatal in as little as 24 to 36 hours.

Because vets still don't know what this disease is, they don't have a treatment. The best most infected dogs can get is mitigation of symptoms through oxygen therapy, nutrition, and antibiotics.

The best course is prevention. Veterinary professionals warn that dog owners should avoid heavily trafficked areas, such as dog parks, grooming salons, pet stores, and boarding facilities. They also suggest ensuring that all pets are up to date on vaccines, especially Bordetella.

For people who live in congested areas, such as apartment buildings, where contact with other dogs may be unavoidable, experts recommend bathing pets more often, wiping their paws down after trips outside, and limiting walks as much as possible.

Limiting outdoor time and walks can be difficult, especially for owners of energetic, young dogs. Visiting less frequented parks or investing in puzzle toys is a safe way to keep active dogs busy while vets attempt to understand this mystery disease.

If your dog shows symptoms of the illness, vets recommend bringing them in as soon as possible and not allowing them to interact with other animals in the house. Isolation may be hard for multipet families, but if one dog contracts the disease, the best way to keep all other pets safe is to keep them away from each other.

Dogs are social animals and won't understand why they need to stay distant from their favorite places and friends. Providing them with at-home enrichment, giving extra cuddles, and continuing to prioritize vaccines, a healthy diet, and exercise when you can is the best way to keep them happy and healthy through this scary time.