Burlington emergency vet sees uptick in respiratory illness in dogs

The canine respiratory illness has circulated around New England, but veterinarians still aren’t sure what’s causing it. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Melinda Moulton woke up in the middle of the night last week to the sound of her 2-year-old mini dachshund, Milo, with a “goose cough.” In the morning, the pup was spitting up white foam, and the condition worsened until Moulton rushed him to the emergency vet. 

“He looked really concerned and scared, and he was shaking, and his respiration seemed really high,” said Moulton, a Huntington resident and the cofounder of Burlington’s Main Street Landing. 

On antibiotics now, Milo seems to be on his way to a full recovery. But an illness with similar symptoms has popped up in dogs around New England, and some cases have required hospitalization. Some have even been fatal. Local veterinarians are encouraging dog owners to take a few extra precautions to avoid exposure. 

Veterinarians at Burlington Emergency and Veterinary Specialists, based in Williston, have seen roughly 30 dogs with upper respiratory infections since the beginning of the year, according to Mallory Sullivan, an associate emergency veterinarian with the animal hospital. 

So far, the illness does not have a name, and while vets have tested the dogs for possible causes, they haven’t yet found any. Its most common symptoms are coughing, the production of white foam, discharge from the nose or eyes, fatigue, fevers and lack of appetite. In about 90% of the cases the animal hospital has documented, dogs were fully vaccinated.

“Many of these dogs have progressed to pneumonia from upper respiratory disease despite antibiotics which is concerning,” Sullivan wrote in an email. About half of the documented cases required hospitalization, mainly when the illness progressed to pneumonia. Four dogs have died since the beginning of the year, she said. 

The illness “is affecting more dogs than we have seen in the past and they are presenting with more significant illness/pneumonia,” she wrote. 

Dogs are most likely contracting the illness at pet daycares, dog parks and boarding facilities. Sullivan recommended that pet owners take note of other dogs with whom their pet comes into contact, and see a vet quickly if their own dog develops any of the relevant symptoms. 

Although the disease has popped up throughout New England, Vermont Public first reported, it doesn’t appear to be prevalent everywhere.

Lauren Quinn, a doctor of veterinary medicine at Onion River Animal Hospital in Berlin, said the facility has only seen “what seem to be fairly typical cases of kennel cough, or infectious coughs” in dogs. Staff at the animal hospital are in touch with vets at Burlington Emergency and Veterinary Specialists and are keeping an eye out for the illness.  

While Onion River sometimes sees a total of more than 60 animals per day, staff have only seen about 10 cases of newly coughing dogs from the beginning of February to now, in which the cough wasn't explained by heart disease or another chronic condition, Quinn said. 

“That's not an unusual number of coughing dogs for us, especially during seasonal outbreaks of respiratory disease,” she wrote.

None of those cases developed into pneumonia, and Quinn said the animal hospital has not seen severe disease or deaths from respiratory illness. 

Quinn recommended that pet owners “stay current on the Bordetella vaccination and their distemper combo vaccination, so they are as protected as they can be against the most common respiratory illnesses.”

Coughing dogs should stay at home, Quinn said.

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Email: emma@vtdigger.org

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