Island County dog diagnosed with mystery illness

A dog in the county was diagnosed with a confounding respiratory disease that has made headlines.

One dog in Island County has been diagnosed with a confounding respiratory disease that has made headlines across the country recently, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

As a result of the media buzz, some of Whidbey’s approximately 25,000 pet owners worry about the possibility of their beloved puppers getting sick too, although some experts are now downplaying the danger of the illness.

According to Washington State Veterinarian Amber Itle, the canine infectious respiratory disease complex — or CIRDC for short — is a highly contagious disease that has been known for decades. However, reports of a new “atypical” disease that is more severe and doesn’t respond to antibiotics have been increasing, leaving experts scratching their heads about its causes.

Between August and Dec. 1, 2023, WSDA received 16 reports of dogs potentially carrying the disease from veterinarians across the state, two of which from Island County. Only one of the Island County dogs, however, meets the criteria for the disease, according to WSDA Public Information Officer Amber Betts.

Both the Island County doggies are recovering or have recovered, she wrote. In the meantime, WSDA keeps collecting information on the other reports.

Normally, according to Itle, CIRDC is characterized by acute or chronic inflammation of the trachea and bronchial airways that results in harsh and dry coughing fits, retching and gagging and sometimes partial anorexia. The dogs may also develop pneumonia, and consequently symptoms such as lethargy, lack of appetite, fever, nasal discharge and respiratory distress at rest.

The atypical disease is much harsher than the usual respiratory infection and doesn’t respond to antibiotics. Currently, scientists don’t know what causes the illness, whose symptoms have been observed to last six weeks or more — much longer than the usual CIRDC.

In an email, Betts wrote that the disease is not fatal on its own.

“This is not a deadly disease. It’s one where you’d expect your canine to have symptoms that last longer than a typical respiratory virus,” she wrote.

Though it’s unknown how many cases exist nationwide, Scott Weese, who teaches pathobiology at the University of Guelph Ontario Veterinary College, said the current disease patterns don’t indicate the emergence of a new highly contagious pathogen. On Nov. 30, Weese spoke at a webinar hosted by Trupanion, a pet medical insurance company. The Facebook webinar can be accessed through the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association’s website.

Weese believes the illness is not sweeping the country, contrary to what many have been fearing. Instead, he said, media coverage has been amplifying concerns. Similarly, Itle said the fear might be a result of people’s heightened concerns in the post-pandemic era.

Cinnamon Hudgins, executive director of Whidbey Animals’ Improvement Foundation, said the shelter hasn’t seen any cases of respiratory or atypical respiratory disease recently, but staff has been following updates and advice from veterinary experts.

WAIF, Hudgins said, has a separate space for isolating and quarantining any sick pet that is infected or shows signs of an infection. To avoid spreading any disease to other animals, staff members have to wear protective gear and change it between interacting with animals.

Donna DeBonis, a veterinarian from Oak Harbor, said she believes people should be concerned about the disease and that owners should take their dog’s prolonged coughing very seriously.

“I am very worried because the progression of the disease towards severe illness is very rapid,” she said.

According to Itle, dogs most at risk include puppies and elderly dogs; unvaccinated dogs or dogs that aren’t up to date with their shots; dogs in kennels, daycares or boarding facilities; dogs that play with other dogs with unknown vaccination or travel history; and flat-faced breeds — like pugs. Stress can also increase the chances of infection.

Experts recommend dog owners to contact their veterinarian if they suspect their pet has a respiratory disease. Itle cautioned that waiting too long to get a diagnosis might lead to false negative results or to the dog being unable to shed the organism responsible for its sickness. If the dog isn’t responding to treatment, it might be an atypical case.

Though death is a possible unfortunate outcome, Itle wrote that mortality rates due to the illness are low. If a dog passes away, the body should be submitted to a diagnostic laboratory, like the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Library at Washington State University, to determine the cause of death.

There are some ways owners can increase protection for their puppers, Itle wrote, such as scheduling annual visits to the veterinary clinic, making sure the dog is fully vaccinated and boosted for all canine respiratory diseases every year, and avoiding congregations of dogs — like dog parks or daycares.

A resident takes a dog for a walk at the Double Bluff Beach Dog Park early this year. Experts caution resident to be careful about taking their pooches to crowded dog parks because of an illness going around. (Photo by David Welton)

A resident takes a dog for a walk at the Double Bluff Beach Dog Park early this year. Experts caution resident to be careful about taking their pooches to crowded dog parks because of an illness going around. (Photo by David Welton)