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Hunting for the mystery agent causing respiratory disease in dogs

The first case of this previously unknown respiratory illness occurred in New Hampshire in summer 2022.

A trainee guide dog is weighed at the Leamington Spa centre. — © AFP
A trainee guide dog is weighed at the Leamington Spa centre. — © AFP

A new respiratory illness is spreading in dogs, according to National Geographic magazine. The cycle of the illness is causing some concern among animal scientists, especially given the geographical react. To date the condition has been reported in more than a dozen U.S. states.

The disease causes coughing and sneezing and it lasts for longer than other upper respiratory conditions in dogs (that is for more than ten days). So far, anti-inflammatories have proved to be ineffective. The term “canine upper respiratory disease complex” has been used to describe the infection (or sometimes “kennel cough”).

Commonly reported symptoms include a cough, fever, lethargy and intermittent loss of appetite.

The first case of this previously unknown respiratory illness occurred in New Hampshire in summer 2022. Initial findings were puzzling. Scientists found no RNA or DNA viruses. No fungus, bacteria, protozoa, or metazoan (multicellular parasites).

Later analysis revealed a small segment of DNA that showed up in 21 out of 30 samples taken from dogs in New Hampshire. The DNA belongs to a previously unknown bacterium, which is similar to Mycoplasma.

The pathogen is “a funky bacterium,” explains Dr. David Needle, pathology section chief at the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture at the University of New Hampshire. He continues: “It’s smaller than a normal bacterium in its size and in the size of its genome. Long story short, it’s a weird bacterium that can be tough to find and sequence.”

Later examinations of samples from dogs in Massachusetts and Rhode Island also showed the unknown bacterium.

Studies are ongoing to learn more about the bacterium, however it is yet to be established if this organism is the point of origin.  It may turn out to be that the bacteria grow in noticeable numbers because the animals are weakened from another yet-to-be-identified pathogen. It may also be that more than one pathogen is responsible and there could be regional differences between areas of the U.S.

This leads some scientists to speculate that what is being observed is a syndrome (a group of diseases that have similar clinical signs, as with the common cold).

In terms of transmission, dog-to-dog contact appears to be the primary route. This means owners of dogs that interact with other dogs need to be mindful of the risks and disease symptoms, especially where animals are relatively more vulnerable (such as younger dogs, older dogs, and dogs with other chronic conditions).

Humans and other animals are not believed to be at risk from the illness.

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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