How to Talk to Clients About Mystery Canine Respiratory Illness

Hailey Rein, BA, VetMedux

Emily Faison, MA, VetMedux

ArticleDecember 20236 min read
Print/View PDF
image source

With reports of a “mystery” respiratory illness affecting dogs appearing in media nationwide, some panicked pet owners are calling veterinary clinics hoping for answers on how to keep their dogs safe.

Clinical signs include persistent cough, sneezing, lethargy, and eye and nasal discharge, and some cases have developed into pneumonia that turns fatal. This form of canine infectious respiratory disease complex (CIRDC) appears to not be responsive to standard medical therapy.

While cases have been reported in several states across the country, whether or not this illness is a new disease, or an outbreak at all, remains unclear.

“I think we consider it an outbreak in the context that we've got more disease than we would normally have in some places,” said Clinician’s Brief Editor in Chief Scott Weese, DVM, DVSc, DACVIM, FCAHS. “It's certainly not something that's affecting everywhere and it's more consistent with this up and down pattern we typically see with endemic infectious diseases.”

“The suspicion is that we've seen a gradual increase in respiratory disease in dogs over the last couple years, and when you superimpose the normal peaks and valleys over top, some of the peaks seem a little more remarkable—and media and social media has probably amplified it a lot more. So I think we're confident that there is more disease going on, but there's not kind of a massive cross-country outbreak.”

Responding to Client Concerns Regarding Respiratory Illness

Whether these cases of canine respiratory illness are a legitimate outbreak or not, concerned dog owners are looking to you for guidance. Here are tips on how to handle client questions:

  1. Create a welcoming environment for open communication: While much is currently unknown, buzzwords circulating in the news such as “outbreak,” “mystery illness,” and “fatal” are bound to cause concern among clients. Ensuring clients feel comfortable coming to you for clarification and reassurance is key to combating internet-fueled misinformation. Clients should feel safe to ask questions and be provided with accurate information they can trust.

  2. Be reassuring while being honest: Maintain a balance between acknowledging concerns without exacerbating panic. Reassure owners there are practical steps they can take to prevent the spread of canine respiratory illness, and that there are still effective options for treatment for most cases of CIRDC. “Putting it into perspective is good,” said Dr. Weese. “It's still an uncommon disease, and the vast majority of dogs who get respiratory disease have mild self-limiting disease, and [for] the small percentage [that] get severe disease, if we recognize them early, we can treat them early. So those are all good … from a prevention aspect.”

  3. Translate medical jargon & buzzwords: Pet owners without the benefit of a medical background may be confused and overwhelmed by news stories reporting a fatal illness. Be sure not to use medical jargon when you address client concerns. When dog owners have a better understanding of what is going on, they can feel more at ease and educated on the issue.

Get More Tips: Communicating Pet Health Information to Veterinary Clients

Staying Informed of Potential Outbreaks

When constantly changing information is flooding in, remaining informed on the latest in regional and global outbreaks is vital to providing accurate client information and appropriate patient care.

Biosurveillance: How to Monitor Disease Trends

“Mainstream media can provide useful information to see kind of what's going on, but often gets taken out of context or gets sensationalized,” said Dr. Weese. “I think going to known sources, government sources, and typical experts helps, as opposed to trying to rely on discerning what's real and what's not through social media and media.” Avoid speculation and disinformation by turning to trusted medical experts, such as university resources:

Ensure your veterinary staff is informed of the available facts of this illness and has a clear understanding of the clinic's protocol for respiratory cases. All veterinary staff should be on the same page so that client communication is well-informed and consistent.

Educating Pet Owners on Preventive Measures

When clients ask how they can keep their dogs safe, offering practical and accurate advice is critical. How you respond to client concerns can impact not only patient health, but can boost client confidence by giving them a sense of control over the situation.

“I think there are a couple of different tacks we can take [communicating with clients],” said Dr. Weese. “One is it depends on the person. So part of the story is this has always been here. We've always had respiratory disease, and for some people, that's a bit reassuring because it has not changed a whole lot from before.”

“(For) some people, that freaks them out a little bit because they don't like the concept of anything being a risk, but we have to realize there's always some degree of risk. And the risk right now in some areas might be higher. In some areas, it's probably the same, but regardless, there are just basic things that we do all the time to try to reduce the risk of disease.”

While some specifics around this disease remain unknown, educate clients about the basics of respiratory illness. Remind clients that vaccines are an important preventive measure. Recommend vaccinating against canine parainfluenza virus (CPIV) and Bordetella bronchiseptica as appropriate, as these can help dogs fight respiratory illness should they contract it.

“Vaccination's important, we can't vaccinate against everything, but the leading guess right now … is that this is just increased disease caused by the usual suspects,” said Dr. Weese. “So if that's the case, then vaccination will help because bordetella and parainfluenza are two of the more common causes, and if they're going up, vaccination will help kind of stem that.”

Dispel Doubts: Top 5 Vaccine Myths

Clients should also be informed about the potential transmission risks other dogs may pose. Dogs may face a greater risk of exposure to the illness at dog parks or boarding facilities. Using shared water bowls or toys can also increase the risk of transmission, particularly with dogs of unknown health status.

“Reducing the risk is just an exposure thing. The more dogs you're around, the greater the risk is. So if people are concerned, it's thinking about the dog contacts that they have and try to limit the number, especially limiting the number of random contacts with dogs. You know nothing about their health status, their vaccination status,” said Dr. Weese. Tailoring your recommendations to the individual patient's health can also help build confidence and trust between you and pet owners.

“We don't need to stop all dog contacts, but we can reduce some of the high-risk contacts, especially with our higher-risk dogs. So as a senior dog, or a brachycephalic breed, or a dog with lung disease or heart disease, we want to pay even more attention to avoiding those high-risk contacts and vaccinating them.”

During this holiday season, clients should be informed of the risks of transmission to make holiday and travel plans accordingly.

Make sure to provide additional resources they can explore on their own. Handouts or trustworthy links on CIRDC, transmission, and vaccinations will help give dog owners the best understanding of what is known and what they can do.