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Respiratory Disease in Dogs Sweeping Across the US? Outbreak of Disease or Media Attention?
J. Scott Weese, DVM, DVSc, DACVIM
Revised: December 14, 2023
Published: November 29, 2023

The following article has been adapted from the Worms & Germs Blog, by Dr. Scott Weese, DVM, DVSc, DACVIM.

White and brown dog laying on a bed with a white blanket over its head.
CIRDC is endemic (i.e. always present in dog populations), with various known bacterial and viral causes.

Many dog owners are currently asking, “What’s going on with this reported outbreak of respiratory disease in dogs in the US? What new disease is this?

I’m not sure there’s a new disease here. I’m not even sure if there’s a major outbreak (or any outbreak). Various groups are reporting stories of respiratory disease, which we refer to as canine infectious respiratory disease complex, or CIRDC, in dogs in various parts of the US.

CIRDC signs include:

  •  A “honking” cough that may sound like retching
  •  Sneezing, and discharge from the eyes and or nose
  •  Lethargy, decreased appetite, and labored breathing
  •  Not all dogs show all of these signs, and each case can be slightly different.

There’s always limited info about numbers due to a lack of funding, no real surveillance system, and testing that doesn’t necessarily change treatment for these dogs. Also, the disease description is usually vague…coughing dogs, some that get pneumonia, and unfortunately, a few that die.

The issue is, this largely describes our normal state. CIRDC is endemic (i.e. always present in dog populations), with various known bacterial and viral causes.  These include canine parainfluenza virus, Bordetella bronchiseptica, canine respiratory coronavirus, canine pneumovirus, canine influenza virus, Streptococcus zooepidemicus... roughly in that order of occurrence, and maybe the mysterious bacteria, Mycoplasma. There are also presumably a range of viruses that have been present for a long time but that we don’t diagnose.

I get lots of emails every week asking whether there’s more or more severe CIRDC activity at the moment. The thing is, I’ve been getting those for years, from across North America. To me, that reflects the fact that there’s always circulation of CIRDC and that we notice it more at times, either because of local clusters or, increasingly, local raises in awareness.

We see CIRDC all the time, everywhere. There’s a background level of disease that usually flies under the radar, alongside periodic clusters. Media and social media can drive outbreak concerns. They can be great to get the word out and help sort out issues, but often, they lead to false alarms.

For example, we might have 100 dogs with CIRDC every week in Guelph (a complete guess since we have no way to track this). Usually, few people hear about it. The dogs typically get better, and life goes on. However, if someone starts talking about it on social media, we might hear about 50 of those 100 cases. All of a sudden, we have an ‘outbreak of a disease affecting dozens of dogs’ when in reality, we might just have our normal background level of disease that people are actually noticing.

The same thing happens more broadly. There are thousands of coughing dogs in the US every day since there are millions of dogs. Once people start talking about it, some of these comments go from, "Oh, my dog is coughing. I guess he picked up something at the park.” to comments like “OMG, my dog has this new disease that’s sweeping the nation." 

With the first approach, no one but the owner usually knows or is concerned.  When people are very worried about their beloved pets, panic, and post on social media, it can lead to further assumptions that things are much scarier or that a “new disease” is developing.

So, what are these reports actually reflecting?

  • A multistate outbreak caused by some new bacterium/virus      
  • A multistate outbreak caused by our usual suspects, for some reason      
  • Unconnected sporadic local outbreaks caused by usual suspects      
  • A slight increase in baseline disease      
  • Our normal disease activity has resulted in an outbreak of media attention.      

I suspect it’s one of the last two. My perception is that we have been seeing a bit more CIRDC activity over the past couple of years and that we see a somewhat greater incidence of severe cases.

Other factors to consider:

  • With more cases, we see more severe disease.
  • Brachycephalic or short-nosed breeds (French bulldogs, pugs, etc.) with a higher likelihood of dysfunctional breathing are very popular and much more likely to have severe outcomes from any respiratory disease.
  • Increases in deaths could be linked to the dogs’ physiology, not disease factors.

Things are still unfolding for the veterinary community with CIRDC, but right now there does not appear to be a need for increased concern.

What can you do to protect your dog?

  • Limit your dog’s contacts, especially traveling family or friends with dogs of unknown health status.
  • Keep your dog away from sick dogs.
  • If your dog is sick, keep it away from other dogs.
  • Talk to your vet about vaccination against causes of CIRDC including canine parainfluenza (CPIV), Bordetella bronchiseptica, and canine influenza (which is more sporadic and vaccine availability is still an issue).

Overall, if you are concerned that your dog may have CIRDC or that they may be exposed due to certain activities, talk to your veterinarian. They can tell you what may increase their chances of contracting CIRDC and what to look out for based on your pet’s health status.

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