The mysterious respiratory illness that has sickened scores of dogs across the country may be the result of a new type of bacterial infection that may be very good at evading the canine immune system, researchers say. Some dogs have died from the illness which starts with a cough that lasts for weeks, watery eyes and sneezing.
In a development that could help shed light on the illness, which affects a range of dog breeds, researchers at the University of New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and the Hubbard Center for Genomic Studies told NBC News that they have identified a pathogen that could be as is. making pets sick.
By genetically sequencing samples from an initial group of 30 dogs from New Hampshire that were infected last year and then an additional 40 from Rhode Island and Massachusetts that became ill this year, the researchers say they have found a previously unknown germ this.
“The pathogen is a ‘funky’ bacterium,” said Dr. David Needle, chief of the department of pathology in the College of Life and Agricultural Sciences at the University of New Hampshire. “It’s smaller than a normal bacterium in size and the size of its genome. Long story short, it’s a strange bacterium that can be difficult to find and sequence.”
The germ is “new as a potential cause of the disease, but it probably — or has evolved from — is a component of the dog microbiome,” he said. Dogs as well as humans have many types of harmless bacteria and other microorganisms living inside and outside the body. In the gut, they are thought to aid digestion.
The bacterium was discovered after an intensive search.
“After initial sequencing showed no known viral, bacterial or fungal pathogens, time-consuming work by graduate student Lawrence Gordon revealed that 21 of the 30 had genetic material from a single atypical bacterial species initial sample from New Hampshire,” Needle said. .
The UNH team is sharing their findings before publishing a research article, hoping they will provide some information to veterinarians when dealing with other respiratory syndrome outbreaks, he said.
Scientists aren’t even sure yet if the same bug is making dogs sick across the nation. Many researchers have wondered whether it was a bacterial or viral pathogen. One thing vets know is that the germ is something they don’t recognize.
New Hampshire is one of at least 10 states that have reported cases of the respiratory infection in dogs.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture has received more than 200 case reports from veterinarians across the state since the beginning of August, spokeswoman Andrea Cantu-Schomus said in an email. A very small percentage of the dogs have died, Cantu-Schomus said.
Other states with reported cases include:
Because there is no test for the illness yet and because 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.
Usually, to determine which antibiotics might work best against a certain type of bacteria, labs grow the bugs in a petri dish and then try to kill them with different medications. Needle and her colleagues were unable to grow the new bacteria in the laboratory. However, its structure gives some clues about which medications might be the best option to fight it, he said. The antibiotic doxycycline might be effective, he suggested.
If it turns out that the New Hampshire researchers have found the right microbe, that could explain why some dogs are getting very sick, said Dr. Karl Jandrey, professor of small animal clinical emergency and critical care at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine.
Smaller pathogens likely have an easier time getting past a dog’s upper respiratory tract defenses and entering the lungs, he said. “If it gets into the lungs, there’s a risk of pneumonia,” he said.
According to Cantu-Schomus Oregon, dog illnesses mainly develop in three ways:
As inflammation of the tubes that connect the throat to the lungs are minimally or not responsive to antibiotics.
As chronic pneumonia that is minimally or not responsive to antibiotics.
As acute pneumonia that quickly becomes severe and often leads to serious illness or possibly death in as little as 24 to 36 hours.
If a dog has a persistent cough and other respiratory symptoms, the owner is advised to contact a veterinarian.
Although the respiratory symptoms appear to be similar to a viral illness, the test for the virus was negative, Cantu-Schomus said.
The cause is very likely to turn out to be viral, said Colin Parrish, professor of virology in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University. “With the sequencing methods that people use to search for unknown viruses, its signature would be clear in a few days,” he said.
So it is possible that the New Hampshire scientists may have hit on the right pathogen, although their results need to be confirmed with further research, he said.
While 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 may be more likely because due to crowded conditions and close contact.
“When you gather a bunch of animals together, you’re more likely to get an infectious disease from other dogs,” said Dr. Kurt Williams, director of the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Oregon State University’s Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine.
Still, he said, there are some facilities where you’re less likely to have a problem because of how they’re designed.
“I’m telling people to work closely with their vet,” Williams said. “And to make sure that all the vaccines are available for their dog, especially the vaccines for respiratory diseases that we are familiar with.”
Another option is for homeowners to hire a home inspector, Needle said. “Or hire a dog walker,” he said. “Maybe it’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing. Also, you might want to consider having Thanksgiving at home.”
Ultimately, your dog may be happier at home with a sitter or dog walker stopping by frequently throughout the day than going to a kennel, Jandrey said.
“It’s better to leave them in their own environment,” he said.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com