There's a Mysterious, Highly Contagious Disease Affecting Dogs in Virginia: What to Know

Thousands of dogs in central Virginia have come down with a previously unknown, highly contagious respiratory illness

Close-Up Portrait Of Dog Lying Down
so cute. Photo: Jaromir Chalabala/EyeEm/Getty

Thousands of dogs in central Virginia have come down with a previously unknown, highly contagious respiratory illness — leaving veterinarians urging pet owners to keep their animals at home to prevent the epidemic from spreading.

Charlottesville’s Autumn Trails Veterinary Center first posted about “the significant outbreak” on Sunday and Monday, saying “more than 150 cases” have been seen in the community over the past month and that “more than 1,000 cases” have since appeared in the surrounding area.

Similar reports are coming in from other state veterinarians, they say, including Louisiana and Texas — though it’s unclear if they’re dealing with the same pathogens.

“The symptoms present as a mild to severe coughing and sneezing, with low-grade fevers and lethargy,” Autumn Trails Veterinary Center staff wrote on its website. “The incubation period is from seven to 10 days, and the duration appears to be seven to 21 days. Although no deaths have been reported, it appears to be highly contagious.”

Emily Gordon, a licensed veterinary technician at the Autumn Trails Veterinary Center, tells PEOPLE that pet owners shouldn’t fret.

“There’s no need to panic about it,” she explains. “Right now, it’s a very mild strain of whatever it is — just a mild cough, usually lasting the first few days, though I’ve heard of people hearing longer.”

Still, Gordon suggests dogs remain away from areas of heavily canine traffic, like day cares, groomers, parks, pet stores and boarding facilities.

“There tends to be a lot of canine coughs in the summer because boardings increase when traveling increase,” she says. “It’s almost as comparable to putting your kids in daycare. If you put a bunch of kids together, eventually you’re going to get a cold. If you’re not good at staying at home, one kid’s going to get it, and then the rest and the rest. That’s the same concept with dogs.”

“If you don’t have to expose your dog to other dogs, now’s the time to leave them at home if you can,” she advises.

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For those that do, the Autumn Trails Veterinary Center has taken additional steps to decontaminate its hospital and boarding facility, like immediately placing dogs showing symptoms of the disease in isolation.

Staff is also “actively working with the state veterinarian, the Virginia Board of Veterinary Medicine, veterinarians from multiple vaccine companies, Virginia Tech, and other local veterinary practices in the management of this epidemic,” the center’s website says. “Tests are underway, and we will share those results as soon as we have them.”

In the meantime, the Autumn Trails Veterinary Center will be holding a free vaccination clinic on Saturday, giving 500 doses of the Bordetella and Parainfluenza intranasal vaccines to dogs experiencing symptoms on a first-come, first-serve basis. To avoid exposure, animals won’t be brought into the clinic. Instead, vets will distribute the vaccines in owner’s automobiles.

“We thought it would be nice thing to do with our community,” Gordon says.

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