Alaska’s state veterinarian is asking clinics and pet owners to be on the lookout for signs of a mysterious respiratory illness that has sickened dogs in over a dozen U.S. states but has not yet been detected in Alaska.
“We’re optimistically cautious at this point,” said Dr. Bob Gerlach, who encouraged Alaska pet owners to consider taking precautions now to protect their dogs.
The illness, detected in the U.S. as early as this summer, produces many of the symptoms of kennel cough — coughing, sneezing, runny eyes, lethargy and fever — but doesn’t respond to normal medication and often lasts more than a week.
The cause of the illness has baffled researchers. It has been linked to multiple dog deaths.
“They’ve done a lot of screening and testing, and they don’t even know what’s causing the illness, or whether it’s a new virus or a different strain of virus that’s causing a problem,” Gerlach said Wednesday.
He encouraged dog owners to avoid letting their pets hang around large groups of unfamiliar dogs or drink from communal water bowls, and recommended keeping sick dogs at home.
He said owners should also call pet boarding facilities and grooming salons beforehand to ask about their illness prevention protocols, which should include not accepting dogs that are coughing or sick, he said.
Gerlach said this week that while some veterinary clinics in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska have seen recent increases in respiratory illnesses that are typical for this time of year, none of those have so far been associated with the new illness.
But Gerlach noted that several states where the illness has been identified are closer to Alaska, including Washington, Oregon and California.
He said it wasn’t clear whether this geographical closeness could mean increased risk to Alaska pets in the coming days and weeks.
“We don’t know how contagious it is after an animal has it. And if they get over it, how long they are able to spread the virus, if that’s what this is,” he said.
A Nov. 24 letter signed by Gerlach and distributed to all active members of the Alaska Veterinary Medical Association asked for help with surveillance and detection.
“If you are seeing a higher-than-normal number of canine respiratory cases in your clinic, or increased severity of cases, please contact our office,” the letter said.
It listed several symptoms consistent with the unidentified illness for veterinarians to watch for:
• Chronic mild to moderate tracheobronchitis lasting six to eight weeks or longer that is minimally responsive to antibiotics.
• Chronic pneumonia that is minimally or not responsive to antibiotics.
• Acute pneumonia that rapidly becomes severe and often leads to poor outcomes, including deteriorated health and sometimes death, in as little as 24 to 36 hours.
“If the dogs have any symptoms, pet owners are encouraged to go to their regular veterinarian and do some initial testing to see if there’s concern for this new outbreak,” Gerlach said.
Alaska has less state-to-state pet traffic than other states, “so our risk is going to be a little bit lower. But we’re always trying to go ahead and be preventative and be precautionary,” he said.