The mysterious respiratory illness that may have sickened dozens of dogs across the country may be caused by a new type of bacterial infection that may very well evade the canine immune system, researchers say. Some dogs have died from the disease which initially causes a cough that can last for weeks, runny eyes and sneezing.
In a development that could help shed light on the disease, which has affected various dog breeds, researchers at the University of New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and the Hubbard Center for Genomic Studies said told NBC News that they had identified a pathogen that could be what’s making the animals sick.
Thanks to genetic sequencing of samples from a first group of 30 dogs from New Hampshire infected last year, then 40 others from Rhode Island and Massachusetts who fell ill this year, researchers say they have discovered a germ until then unknown.
The pathogen is “a funky bacteria,” said Dr. David Needle, chief of the pathology section at the University of New Hampshire’s College of Life and Agricultural Sciences. “It is smaller than a normal bacterium in terms of its size and the size of its genome. Long story short, it’s a strange bacteria that can be difficult to find and sequence.
The germ “is new as a potential cause of disease, but it is likely that it is – or evolved from – a component of the dog microbiome,” he said. Dogs as well as humans have multiple types of harmless bacteria and other microorganisms living both inside and outside the body. In the gut, they are thought to aid digestion.
The bacteria was discovered after careful research.
“After initial sequencing showed there were no known viral, bacterial or fungal pathogens, the long and hard work of graduate student Lawrence Gordon showed that 21 of the initial 30 samples from New Hampshire contained genetic material from an atypical bacterial species,” Needle said. .
The UNH team is sharing its findings before publishing a research paper, hoping to provide information to veterinarians as they deal with other respiratory syndrome outbreaks, he said.
Scientists don’t even know yet whether the same virus is making dogs sick across the country. Many researchers debate whether it is a bacterial or viral pathogen. One thing veterinarians know is that the germ is something they don’t recognize.
New Hampshire is one of the few states with reported cases of respiratory infection in dogs.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture has received more than 200 case reports from veterinarians across the state since early August, spokeswoman Andrea Cantu-Schomus said in an email. A very small percentage of dogs died, Cantu-Schomus said.
Other states with reported cases include:
Because there is no test for the disease yet and many of the symptoms are similar to other respiratory infections, such as canine flu and Bordetella (kennel cough), it is not known exactly how many dogs have been affected. With hundreds of cases identified by symptoms reported in Oregon alone, there are likely thousands.
Normally, to determine which antibiotics would be most effective against a particular type of bacteria, laboratories grow the insects in a petri dish and then attempt to kill them with various drugs. Needle and his colleagues were unable to grow the new bacteria in the laboratory. Still, its structure offers some clues about which drugs might be the best choice to combat it, he said. The antibiotic doxycycline might be effective, he suggested.
If it turns out that the New Hampshire researchers found the right microbe, it could explain why some dogs get very sick, said Dr. Karl Jandrey, professor of clinical emergency and small animal critical care at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine.
Smaller pathogens will likely have an easier time getting past the dog’s defenses in the upper respiratory tract and entering the lungs, he said. “If it enters the lungs, there is a risk of pneumonia,” he added.
According to Oregon’s Cantu-Schomus, dog diseases largely develop in three ways:
- This is an inflammation of the tubes that connect the throat to the lungs that responds little or not to antibiotics.
- As a chronic pneumonia that responds little or not to antibiotics.
- It is an acute pneumonia that quickly becomes serious and often leads to serious illness or death in as little as 24 to 36 hours.
If a dog exhibits a persistent cough and other respiratory symptoms, it is recommended that the owner contact a veterinarian.
Although the respiratory symptoms appear to resemble a viral illness, tests came back negative for a virus, Cantu-Schomus said.
It’s very unlikely that the cause is viral, said Colin Parrish, a professor of virology at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “With the sequencing methods used to search for unknown viruses, its signature would have been clear within days,” he added.
So it’s possible that the New Hampshire scientists found the right pathogen, although their results need to be confirmed with additional research, he said.
Even though a record number of Americans are expected to travel during the holiday season, experts recommend that dog owners keep their pets out of kennels and other areas, such as dog parks, where infection could be more likely due to overcrowding and close contact.
“When you bring a group of animals together, the risk of contracting an infectious disease from other dogs is higher,” said Dr. Kurt Williams, director of the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine from Oregon State University.
Still, he added, there are some facilities where you’re less likely to have problems because of the way they’re designed.
“I told people to work closely with their veterinarian,” Williams said. “And to ensure that their dog has all available vaccines, especially those against respiratory diseases that we know about.”
Another option is for homeowners to hire a house sitter, Needle said. “Or hire a dog walker,” he added. “It may not be perfect, but it’s better than nothing.” You might also consider celebrating Thanksgiving at home.
Ultimately, your dog might be happier at home with a house sitter or dog walker who stops by several times throughout the day rather than going to a kennel, Jandrey said.
“It’s best to leave them in their own environment,” he added.