TAMPA — Hillsborough County Animal Services officials say they've identified two uncommon strains of respiratory virus making the rounds in dogs, ones for which there are no vaccinations.
They are concerned enough that they took the unusual step Monday of no longer accepting most new dogs at the county's public shelter and halting dog adoptions. They hope these measures will last only two weeks, enough to contain the spread of the illnesses at the shelter.
Because the viruses have shown up in a handful of dogs at the shelter, that means they're in the community as well. However, shelters in other Tampa Bay area counties say they so far have not noticed any appearance of the most serious strain.
"If it's here, there's a high likelihood it's in surrounding counties, too," said Christy Layton, vice president of the Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society. "It's a virus that can be spread easily. I think the take away from this is if a dog starts coughing or sneezing, you need to take it to a veterinarian."
A veterinarian with the county's shelter further suggested that people may want to put off a trip to the dog park for now to avoid the potential exposure to other animals that are ill.
"These viruses are very contagious," said shelter veterinarian Lisa Tipton. "Therefore, it's important for people not to take their dogs where there will be lots of other dogs."
However, Layton said that may be an extreme measure in many instances.
Most dogs that are otherwise healthy, up to date with vaccinations available for other illnesses and well-cared for are not at as great a risk as animals that end up in shelters. Oftentimes, those dogs have been neglected or are not vaccinated and the stress of getting captured and caged alongside other dogs can weaken an animal's immune system.
Animal Services officials identified the two viruses as respiratory coronavirus and pneumovirus.
The former is not unheard of and is not considered serious. The latter has only recently been identified and, if left untreated, can lead to more serious illnesses such as pneumonia.
Both come with symptoms common to other forms of respiratory illnesses in dogs that are sometimes commonly referred to as kennel cough: coughing, sneezing, runny eyes or noses. Some dogs may lose their appetites or develop fevers.
"If you take them to the veterinarians and treat them, the odds are low that they'll become very sick," Animal Services director Ian Hallett said.
Generally speaking, the symptoms can be treated until the virus runs its course.
In setting a veterinarian appointment, people with ill pets should describe in advance the symptoms so steps can be taken to avoid letting their dogs interact with others in a common waiting area at the vet.
The viruses in Hillsborough were identified after vets at the shelter noticed that a few dogs there were not responding to the normal course of treatment for respiratory illnesses. Tipton had just attended a conference where she learned about pneumovirus.
So she sent nose and mouth swabs from 11 of the sick animals or dogs in neighboring kennels to a lab at Cornell University, the only place believed to perform a test for pneumovirus.
A handful came back positive for it or coronavirus or both.
Hillsborough County's animal shelter will continue to accept sick or dangerous dogs. But the hope is that by halting most intake and adoptions and placing dogs that are sick in quarantine, the shelter can keep the illnesses from spreading within its population.
People whose dogs are picked up as strays may still claim them. There are no changes for cat intake or adoptions.
Times staff writers Barbara Behrendt, Anne Lindberg and Alex Orlando contributed to this report.