FAQ about the possible “mystery dog illness”

FAQ about the possible “mystery dog illness”

Dec. 2023; updated Mar. 2024

What’s the update as of March 2024?

The mini-scare in the national press before Thanksgiving about the “mystery dog illness” continues to seem well and truly behind us and a non-event, as we re-confirmed with local vets in recent days. Certainly at Happy Dogs, our respiratory illness stats have continued to be at (or below) typical levels this winter.

When was this mystery illness first reported?

The New York Times first reported about a “mystery respiratory illness” affecting dogs on Nov. 20, at which point it had been reported in four states across the country (outside New York).

What are the symptoms of the illness?

Similar to “normal” kennel cough, including cough, running nose, and lethargy.

How is it treated?

Vets have generally been treating it similarly to other seasonal respiratory illnesses, including with antibiotics. In some cases, dogs haven’t responded as well as in previous years to such treatment, which is what initially gave rise to the hypothesis of a new “mystery” illness.

Are vets sure it’s a new illness?

No. To the contrary, at this point it seems unlikely to be new at all. As a Dec. 6 New York Times follow-up article reported “there is little evidence that a dangerous new canine superbug is sweeping the nation, and that prospect remains unlikely, experts said.”

On Dec. 20, PBS quoted Dr. Deborah Silverstein of the University of Pennsylvania vet school as follows: “It’s likely that this new illness is caused by a conglomeration of familiar pathogens that commonly infect canines. I think right now we have no reason to definitively suspect anything mysterious or new. That doesn’t mean it is not possible. But I do think we should try to exclude the known factors first and treat the treatable and prevent the diseases that we know are commonly culprits for this disease prevention.”

If it’s not new, what’s going on?

One possibility is that a lot of dogs in other states were left unvaccinated or otherwise with lower immunity due to isolation during Covid, and now are getting more sick than usual. As the Dec. 6 New York Times piece reported, “Respiratory diseases have always waxed and waned in dogs, and outbreaks often flare up unpredictably. And the Covid-19 pandemic — when many Americans not only adopted new dogs but also hunkered down at home with them — could have left many dogs without pre-existing immunity to disease, experts said.”

Which dogs seem most vulnerable?

“The animals we really worry about getting severe infections are those that don’t have a good immune system. So those would be very young animals, especially if they have not had a full series of vaccines, or very old animals, because they’re more likely to have comorbidities or other diseases that may weaken their immune system,” per Dr. Deborah Silverstein of the University of Pennsylvania vet school, as quoted in a Dec. 6 New York Times piece.

Given what we know, what’s the most important thing I should do?

In our judgment, two most important things. First, make sure your dog’s vaccinations are up-to-date. Second, watch vigilantly for any signs of illness – coughs, running nose, lethargy – and see your vet without delay if you see any. When you aren’t watching your dog, make sure your dog is being supervised by people you trust to watch for symptoms and take proper action without delay.

What about public dog parks?

“Dog parks are already somewhat controversial, Dr. Silverstein said, though she knows how beloved they can be. But right now, she said it was ‘safest to stay away from other dogs whose health status and vaccine status is unknown.’ “ (The New York Times, Dec. 6)

Is daycare or boarding safe?

Speaking for ourselves at Happy Dogs, we are confident we are as safe as we’ve always been over the last 10+ years – which we can say with confidence is the safest place anywhere for dogs to play together. I’m happy to confirm that there has been no pattern of transmission – much less any outbreak – at Happy Dogs for respiratory (or any other illness) this winter. 

As is the case every winter and throughout the year, we have seen a small handful of dogs with symptoms while with us, and another small handful of parents have let us know they saw symptoms when their dogs were outside daycare or boarding. The number of such cases this winter have been in line with, and in some cases lower than, what we’ve seen over the last five years. To be precise: we’re talking about 0.1% – or around 1 in a thousand visits – where we saw any symptoms (and a similar number where parents reported symptoms at home, when the dog was outside our care).

How do you achieve this health track-record at Happy Dogs?

Thanks to our long-standing health protocols, including hourly, daily, and weekly cleaning protocols; our rigorous vaccination enforcement for all dogs; and our vigilant staff who check, isolate, and send home any dog with any concerning symptoms (erring on the side of false alarms, which it often is). During this time, we’ve added professional-grade steam cleaning to our cleaning protocols, and will likely continue this indefinitely. It is also thanks to our members who we ask to do their  part in keeping your vaccinations up-to-date and keeping their  dog home and seeing your vet if they are going through a sniffle or have other symptoms.

Did a dog suspected to have the “mystery illness” die at AMC in New York?

Yes, sadly a dog died of pneumonia in the care of the Animal Medical Center (AMC) in New York on Dec. 14. AMC is one of the best facilities in New York, and as a public service, they are doing an autopsy of the dog to determine if this was triggered by any new “mystery illness,” which they suspect. The autopsy results aren’t available yet.

From everything we do now know about the case, this seems to have been a one-off involving a possibly fatal mistake: days before it died, the dog was given a full suite of vaccine updates after it was already showing symptoms (not by AMC, but by another vet before going to AMC). Vaccines add temporary stress to the immune system which is why many vets think it’s a bad idea if there is already illness.

Also, the dog had been struggling with on-and-off kennel flu in the previous two months, which may have led it to being immunocompromised.

This above case is personal for us, because this dog was an especially beloved regular member of Happy Dogs. When we learned of the case, we informed all Manhattan members, including explicitly checking with those who overlapped with the day during its most recent visits (which were around 2 to 3 weeks previously). We checked with them for any sign of outbreak, which helped us confirm there wasn’t. 

For us, the upshot of the above case is about not updating vaccines when sick. Of course, we aren’t vets and you should take your vet’s guidance, but our strong advice to all members is to avoid vaccination updates while your dog is already sick.

Should I update my dog’s vaccinations if my dog is already showing symptoms?

Take your vet’s advice, but we think the default answer is no. See the case above.

Wouldn’t it be safest to keep my dog home from all contact altogether for now?

Yes, the only way to prioritize minimizing exposure over all other needs is to completely isolate your dog, not only from members-only daycares but also from public dog parks and contact on the street with other dog or places other dogs frequent, and to do this for an unknown amount of time, since we don’t know if and when the vets will figure out what the illness is, or if they will be able to even confirm it is in fact a new illness. 

From what we see right now, there are mixed messages from vets on whether this kind of extreme isolation is worth the social cost for dogs. Some are recommending to avoid higher traffic areas like dog daycares. Others are saying there’s no need to do this if your dog is vaccinated and you go to a reputable place with proper health protocols and track record.

It’s a question of balance: extreme caution versus dog happiness. A quote from the Dec. 6 New York Times article captures the tradeoff well: “The surest way to keep dogs safe is to isolate them from other dogs, said Dr. Renee McDougall, a specialist surgeon with Bond Vet. She and her husband have a five-year-old pit bull mix, Rupert, who adores walks and sniffing other dogs. But for the past three weeks, she said, the couple have kept him from engaging in any ‘nose-to-nose greetings.’ ‘My dog is so sad!’ Dr. McDougall admitted.”

Ok, what should I do given all this? 

This is a decision that each parent has to make for themselves, as they balance the need to keep their dogs active and happy while taking common-sense precautions to avoid illness. 

I’m the owner of Happy Dogs. However, I’d like to speak for a moment as a fellow dog parent, as my own dog Loma goes to Happy Dogs several times a week. 

After discussing it with my wife, we’ve decided to keep our dog at Happy Dogs, because (1) we know he needs the activity and social time to keep sane and avoid stress and anxiety (which can themselves compromise a dog’s immune system) from being cooped up at home, (2) to the extent our dog plays with other dogs, we want to know all the dogs are vaccinated, as they are at Happy Dogs, (3) to the extent our dog is in a shared space, we want to know that space is being rigorously cleaned and disinfected, as is the case at Happy Dogs, (4) we trust the team at Happy Dogs to see and react to potential symptoms more quickly — a lot more quickly — than we could with my dog at home while we’re working or out and about, (5) our dog has no history of respiratory illness, nor is there any reason to believe he’s immunocompromised, (6) the latest national reports strongly suggest this is not something new, and (7) in any case the health numbers at Happy Dogs confirm there is no outbreak nor heightened risk of transmission at Happy Dogs compared to the norm over the last 5 years.

I’d like to wait and see – can you pause my subscription or punchcard?

Yes, just let us know.

I’ve been staying away and am ready to come back – can you unpause my subscription or punchcard?

Yes, just let us know.

I’ve got more questions or concerns.

We’re here for you. Just email us as normal. Or scheduled a call with Ien, our owner, here.