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Dogs are getting sick and no one knows why

Several dogs, big and small, hang out at a dog park. About seven dogs are visible in the photo, mostly minding their own business and sniffing around separately on a dirt patch.
Richard Vogel
Associated Press
Owners bring their dogs to a park in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. Veterinary laboratories in several states, including Oregon, Colorado and New Hampshire, are investigating an unusual respiratory illness in dogs that causes lasting illness and doesn't respond to antibiotics.

Dogs are showing up at veterinary clinics around the nation with intense and persistent “kennel cough” – a symptom linked to a handful of diseases. Testing on the extreme cough is inconclusive, and that could mean a number of things, including the possibility of a new disease.

Cases have been emerging for months and have intensified in recent weeks. The ailment typically isn’t fatal, but it can be punishing to care for such a sick dog.

“The cough seems to be prolonged, so it's seeming to last for weeks to months, and they don't really have a good resolution on it. And they're not responding to treatment,” said Colorado State University Veterinarian Maggie Baldwin.

Still, she says there’s no reason to panic. “It doesn't necessarily mean that we're dealing with something new or novel, it might just mean that we're not testing enough, or we're not testing at the right time in the course of disease.”

There is one big question: Why are cases cropping up in so many places? The extreme cough has been reported in 14 states, from coast to coast. Colorado and Idaho are seemingly the first entry points in the Mountain West.

Baldwin recommends keeping a pet current with all vaccines and monitoring its health closely.

“Early diagnostics might help in getting an accurate diagnosis and treatment,” she said. “So even if your pet is only coughing for a couple of days, the earlier you bring them in, if your veterinarian recommends it, the earlier we may be able to get an accurate diagnosis.”

Morgan Patterson is a veterinarian at Pickaroon Animal Hospital in Windsor, Colo. She had one important tip for keeping dogs healthy.

"We are trying to recommend limiting how much exposure they have to other animals. Boarding, grooming, dog parks— those kinds of things. There's always been some risk for kennel cough in those particular activities, but with the new variant we're seeing, it seems to be riskier," Patterson said.

She recommended taking care to make sure dogs are up to date on their vaccines, as well as isolating sick dogs.

"Making sure that they're not going anywhere if they are experiencing respiratory symptoms, because we certainly don't want them passing it along to anybody else," Patterson said.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture is providing updates on the outbreak on its website.

As a general assignment reporter and backup host, I gather news and write stories for broadcast, and I fill in to host for Morning Edition or All Things Considered when the need arises.

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