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This lab is close to figuring out what causes the mystery dog illness

The New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Lab has been studying the mysterious and sometimes fatal respiratory dog illness since last year.
This lab is close to figuring out what causes the mystery dog illness
Posted at 5:48 PM, Nov 21, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-21 19:48:09-05

There is still a lot to learn about the mysterious and sometimes fatal respiratory illness affecting dogs across the country, but two things are for sure: The bacteria-like organism causing the infections has a “weird” genetic makeup that is taking some time to understand, and it’s probably best to keep your dogs home from the holiday gatherings. 

That’s according to Dr. David Needle, a senior veterinary pathologist at the New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Lab (NHVDL) located at the University of New Hampshire. This lab is perhaps leading the nation right now in understanding what this respiratory syndrome is and where it comes from. 

Figuring it all out is right up Needle’s alley, as he has dedicated most of his clinical work to diagnostic and investigational pathology, and built research programs in the Hubbard Center of Genome Studies

While research is ongoing to understand this respiratory illness, Needle echoes the same advice for pet owners from veterinarians, which is to keep your dog away from other dogs and social settings right now. So traveling with them on planes or bringing them around other family dogs during the holidays might not be the safest. 

The infection is definitely not COVID-19, but Needle said the same precautions used for COVID can be applied to dogs to help prevent them from contracting this contagious and unknown infection. 

SEE MORE: What to know about the mystery illness that is killing dogs in the US

Although vets in different states are seeing a rise in this respiratory syndrome right now, NHVDL’s investigation into it began last year around this same time. The team heard rumblings of a respiratory infection affecting dogs that was not responding to typical treatments, such as antibiotics, and did not test positive for the canine respiratory pathogens that vets usually find – such as kennel cough. 

But without submissions of samples of the mystery illness from state diagnostic labs, there was essentially nothing for the team to research. 

“With the support of my boss, and the Hubbard Genome Center and with discussions with our state veterinarian, I drove some swabs out to a couple of clinics and mailed some swabs to one more and then we just started to sequence them,” said Needle. 

Through determination, they were able to get their hands on 30 respiratory specimens from dogs that were infected with the mystery syndrome in New Hampshire. 

The samples were put through a process called shotgun metagenomic sequencing, which is a technique used to study the entire genetic makeup of a sample versus a piece of it. This type of sequencing is particularly helpful when studying a difficult microorganism. 

“So we found nothing that was a known pathogen, and nothing really closely related to a known pathogen,” Needle said. 

If you rewind to your high school or college biology class, you might remember that pathogens are organisms that can cause diseases, and the most common types of pathogens are bacteria and viruses. While viruses need a living thing — a host — to survive, bacteria are capable of living on their own. 

A graduate student at the Hubbard Center named Lawrence Gordon continued to pore through the samples after the initial sequencing. Needle said in 21 of the 30, he found a small segment of the DNA that’s related to a “previously not described bacteria.” 

“It’s a very small bacteria with a small genome and a weird genome,” said Needle. “So the most we can say is there’s potentially this bacteria there.” 

Their data revealed a bacterial-like organism that is similar to Mycoplasma — which is a type of bacteria that lacks a cell wall, making it naturally resistant to treatment with antibiotics. 

There are over 100 different known species of Mycoplasma, but the most common is “Mycoplasma pneumoniae,” which is known to cause antibiotic-resistant cases of pneumonia by damaging the lining of the respiratory system in humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

There are rare instances of Mycoplasma transmitting from animals to humans, according to a publication by StatPearls, a health care education and technology company, and Antibiotics, which is a peer-reviewed scientific journal. 

Because of the genetic makeup of the infectious organism that NHVDL believes it may have identified, it can’t be cultured in a typical laboratory setting that would allow experts to determine the cause of the infectious disease. 

So until more rigorous testing and analysis are done, NHVDL cannot definitively say what is causing this illness. 

Since their initial group of samples, the team has received specimens from Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and just got some from Oregon. They’re expecting more samples to come in next week from Colorado and Illinois. 

More information about how you can help contribute to their research can be found here

SEE MORE: Family lives in 'daily dread' after dog dies from mystery illness


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