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Kennel cough is ripping through Anchorage dog parks, and veterinarians recommend social distancing for pets

Dogs play at University Lake Dog Park on January 25, 2021. (Marc Lester / ADN)

A highly contagious respiratory infection is spreading rapidly among dogs in Anchorage, according to veterinarians, and many cases are linked to dog parks and other group settings.

Clinics in early January started seeing a significant jump in dogs with kennel cough, or canine infectious tracheobronchitis, said Dr. Sara Lavery of Pet Emergency Treatment. Lavery and her colleagues normally see about one case of kennel cough per shift, but during the last two weeks that number has jumped to six to 10 cases, she said.

“We just need people to know that it’s running rampant,” she said. “I’ve never seen so many kennel cough cases in my career. It’s ridiculous.”

Kennel cough can be caused by a variety of viruses and bacteria, said Dr. Jon Basler of the College Village Animal Clinic. He said the illness could be comparable to the common cold in humans, which can be caused by a number of organisms.

Kennel cough is treatable, and cases vary widely in severity. Some dogs will recover without treatment, while others may require antibiotics or a cough suppressant. The illness hits puppies, older dogs and those with health problems the hardest. In severe cases, it can also lead to pneumonia or death.

The most obvious symptom is a strong cough that can sound like a honk. Dogs may also develop a fever, lethargy, a running nose or sneezing, or a loss of appetite.

Basler said owners should isolate dogs with symptoms and watch to make sure the illness is not getting worse. He said it’s time to see a vet if the dog is markedly depressed or lethargic, has difficulty breathing or is continuously coughing.

The illness is spread in a variety of ways, including through the air, by direct contact with an infected dog, or if a dog makes contact with a contaminated surface. Because it is highly contagious, Lavery advised that owners keep their dogs away from dog parks, day care centers and other group settings for the time being.

A dog is most contagious while it is actively infected and for the week after its last cough, Lavery said. Dogs that have been infected should stay away from others for two to three weeks, she said.

A vaccine known as Bordetella can prevent kennel cough, but Lavery said dogs that are vaccinated can still carry the virus.

“If you have one dog that stays at home and another dog that goes to day care, that dog who goes to day care may be current on the vaccine, but your dog at home may not be,” she said. “We’re seeing that happen where the dog at home is getting it and the dog going to day care isn’t getting it.”

Bordetella is not among the core group of dog vaccines required by Alaska law, although Lavery said it is often required for any dog staying at a day care or boarding center. The vaccine is good for a year, however Lavery said it can be renewed as early as six months.

Lavery said the coronavirus pandemic has caused many clinics to see fewer patients and schedule appointments further out. At Pet Emergency Treatment, one of only two 24-hour emergency animal hospitals in Anchorage, wait times have jumped significantly, Lavery said.

Dr. Sarah Lavery is a veterinarian at Pet Emergency Treatment in Anchorage. (Marc Lester / ADN)

“Veterinarians just have to take cases one at a time, whereas before we could multitask a little bit better,” she said.

Basler said College Village Animal Clinic has significantly modified its procedures too, working mainly on triaging the sickest of animals.

Because of extended wait times or difficulties scheduling an appointment, Lavery said, many dog owners may have forgone routine vaccinations during the pandemic.

Lavery said she fears people will confuse kennel cough with COVID-19 and become alarmed. Although both conditions affect the respiratory system, Lavery said, the illness currently spreading in dogs throughout Anchorage is simply kennel cough.

“None of these dogs are indicative of COVID,” she said. “Everything seems to be treated with the same treatments we would use for kennel cough.”

The coronavirus has been found in a small number of animals, although it has rarely been identified in pets, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The risk of pets spreading the virus to humans is low, the CDC said.

As with COVID-19, Lavery said, the best way to keep your dog safe is simply to stay home.

“You could still take your dog on hikes, but don’t take them to the dog park,” she said. “Especially if they’re mouthing at each other if they’re playing really hard, or playing with sticks and sharing sticks, because it’s spread the same way that the common cold is spread with people.”