‘Mystery’ dog disease: What you need to know

Chocolate Labrador laying on the arm of a couch with sad eyes

Recent reports of a “mystery” dog respiratory disease in several states have some pet owners worried.

If you have a canine friend, don’t panic. While it appears that there may be a spike in respiratory disease in dogs, the best way to protect your pet remains the same.

Let’s break down what we know about this illness and what you can do.

Signs of infectious respiratory disease in dogs

Respiratory disease affects the lungs and breathing. In dogs, we often call it kennel cough, canine cough or, more formally, canine infectious respiratory disease complex (CIRDC). It can be caused by many different bacteria and viruses, and sometimes a sick dog is infected with more than one of these. In more serious cases, pneumonia can develop. Some dogs can die from the disease.

Signs of illness often include:

  • Coughing, often sounding like a “goose honk”
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose and/or eye discharge
  • Gagging or retching
  • Mild fever

When to take your dog to the vet for respiratory illness

Most dogs will recover from these illnesses on their own within a week or two. As long as the dog is comfortable, breathing normally, signs are stable (not quickly getting worse) and has no change in energy, eating or drinking habits, they should be OK.

Contact your vet if your dog has signs of respiratory illness and:

  • Is very young
  • Is elderly
  • Has a compromised immune system, such as from chemotherapy treatments
  • Has other health problems
  • Is a brachycephalic (i.e., squish-faced) breed, like a bulldog or a pug — these types of dogs generally have a harder time breathing
  • Has difficulties breathing in general (before illness)

For any dog, consider it an emergency if it’s having a more difficult time breathing than normal (for instance, breathing faster and harder when not exercising).

How to prevent the spread of infectious respiratory disease in dogs

This illness can spread between dogs like wildfire, so it’s important to take precautions.


“Core” vaccinations protect against some organisms that can lead to potentially deadly respiratory infections. These vaccines should be given to all dogs and include distemper, adenovirus and ideally parainfluenza virus.

Other vaccinations are called “lifestyle” vaccinations. They’re important for dogs who spend time around dogs from other households, in boarding, doggie day care, dog parks or dog shows, for example. These vaccines include those that protect against canine influenza, parainfluenza and Bordetella. Not all of these vaccines are automatically given to all dogs, and many need to be given every year to be effective. Talk to your vet if you have questions about your pet’s need for these vaccines.

It’s also a good idea to plan ahead. If your dogs will be spending time around other pets for holiday travel or a vacation, get vaccines early, because they can take a week or more to kick in, depending on the vaccine.

The diseases dogs and humans can share with one another

Limit dog-to-dog contact

Now is the time to be smart about the type of contact that your dog has, especially when it comes to unknown dogs. A dog can be contagious before it starts to show signs of illness. So, know the dogs you're around as best you can.

If your dog is sick, don’t take it to areas where dogs gather, like dog parks or doggie day care.

Before you take your dog to the vet, call ahead if you suspect it might have anything infectious so the office can take precautions to examine your dog while protecting other animals from getting sick.

Is there a new cause of respiratory illness in dogs?

It’s tough to say whether dogs are getting sick from something new.

When it comes to dogs and cats, we don’t have a system in place for reporting and tracking numbers for most conditions, including respiratory illness. And, often, dogs get better on their own for something like canine cough, so sick dogs aren’t tested to find out the cause of illness. Further, it’s possible to find specific bacteria or viruses in sick dogs, then find the exact same organisms in healthy dogs, so simply finding the organisms is only part of the puzzle.

The information we have on an increase in cases is based on the experiences of veterinarians and others who care for dogs, with some support from pet insurance claims. Some experts are looking into specific causes, but there’s no data at this point that suggests there's a new cause for these illnesses.

Higher numbers of illnesses also could be due to other causes. For example, we might be experiencing lower vaccination rates due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we also don’t have data on these factors.

Are more dogs in Ohio becoming sick with respiratory disease?

So far, there doesn’t appear to be an increase in dog respiratory illness in Ohio. But if something infectious is going around, it’s likely just a matter of time before it hits Ohio. Dogs travel a lot, and in the midst of holiday travel season, they’re likely to spend time around other pets and spread anything contagious. By taking precautions, you can make sure your dog is in the best possible position to avoid an unpleasant holiday season.

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At The Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center, our top priority is making the world healthier for animals and the families who love and care for them.

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