Two dogs stand at a fence

Two dogs stand at a fence in Billings.

A severe canine respiratory disease that hasn’t yet been identified is sickening dogs around Montana and the state is encouraging dog owners to take precautions to protect their pets.

Dr. Tahnee Szymanski, with the Department of Livestock, said the first reported case was in early July, though some veterinarians around the state saw ill dogs earlier. She estimates about 250 dogs have been sickened, with one clinic in Bozeman having seen more than 100 cases. 

Bozeman veterinarian Dr. Loni Odenbeck said she knows of three dog deaths speculated to be related to the upper respiratory outbreak, though without knowing exactly what the disease is, it’s hard to confirm.

Dogs who fell sick around the state appeared initially to have symptoms similar to a severe case of kennel cough, even though they were vaccinated against that disease. Sick dogs had severe coughs, difficulty breathing and fever, and more critical infections turned into pneumonia, which was fatal in a small number of animals.

Dogs with symptoms have been reported in Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Livingston, Red Lodge and Roundup, with some clinics seeing multiple sick dogs a day. Some clinics in Helena have told owners with sick dogs to not bring their pets into the office because of fear of spreading the disease. So far, no cases have shown up in Missoula, vets there said.

Several veterinarians in the Bozeman area, including Odenbeck, are collecting samples from dogs in an attempt to identify the illness and are working with a couple out-of-state university diagnostic labs. Some dogs have had postmortem exams at a Department of Livestock lab in Bozeman.

Early lab tests indicated the disease could be canine influenza, but a later sample collected from a sick dog brought that into question. The U.S. has seen three past outbreaks of canine influenza, according to the Department of Livestock. Past outbreaks were in Chicago in 2015 and later in California and the southeast U.S.

The department recommends pet owners consider limiting their dog’s contact with other pets, as exposure can be traced back to public water bowls or encounters with other dogs and dog parks.

Early cases were associated with boarding dogs, and that may have attributed to the disease’s spread statewide. Several years ago another rash of sick dogs around Montana made it clear how much residents travel with their pets and how commonly dogs from one town end up kenneled in another.

“I was shocked at how far people will travel with their dogs to put them in a kennel,” Szymanski said. “We had people from Butte and Anaconda coming up (to Helena) to kennel their dogs. At the end of the day none of us really comprehended how much pets move on a daily basis and that really accounts for how far-reaching this outbreak is.”

Szymanski advised dog owners to make smart decisions about their pets. She stopped short of advising people to not travel or kennel their dogs, however.

“There’s always some risk any time you’re going to take your dog out in public, whether it’s to a dog park, a trail head or to be boarded. There’s going to be some risk you’re exposing them to illness.”

Odenbeck, who is co-owner of 360 Pet Medical and Pet Emergency Trauma Services in Bozeman, suggested avoiding areas where dogs gather in high concentration. She said many kennels have reached out to ask how they can minimize the spread of the diseases, such as any special cleaning or considering brief shutdowns.

“Kennels don’t need to be completely avoided,” Odenbeck said. “People just need to ask questions. There are still people that need to use those situations and we certainly don’t want to shut down any business based on paranoia.”

Bozeman saw the disease spread so rapidly because it’s such a dog-friendly town and people bring their dogs almost everywhere, Odenbeck said.

Veterinarians have reported to the department that dogs in the 2- to 3-year-old range seem to be the most severely affected. Odenbeck encouraged anyone with a dog showing symptoms or that seems ill to contact their veterinarian right away.

Szymanski encouraged dog owners to develop a good relationship with their veterinarian and keep sick dogs away from other canines.

“Don’t let the disease spread any further than that point,” she said. “Sometimes that means even after all the clinical signs are gone, keep them home for a period of time after that. Work with your vet to determine when it’s safe to go back out into public life.”

Odenbeck said this is the most severe outbreak of any disease she’s seen in her 10 years as a vet in Montana. She’s working with a handful of laboratories, pharmaceutical labs and other industry organizations to help determine what the disease is.

Knowing what is making dog sicks will help veterinarians limit the spread of the illness, treat it better and perhaps be able to recommend vaccinations. If it’s a new virus, there could be work to develop a new vaccine, Odenbeck said. Many Montana vets don't stock influenza vaccines, but that may change, she said, and some kennels have discussed requiring the vaccine before accepting dogs for boarding.

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