BY AMY SHEWCHUKHARDYSTON — It only took a few coughs from some recent boarding canine clientele for Lynn Wilkins of the Pet Spa & Resort in Hardyston to want to find some answers.“I was alerted by a new client whose dogs had a cough after boarding with us and within two days afterwards, I noticed some of my regular boarders coughing,” said Wilkins, who has owned and operated the sprawling facility off Route 94 for over 20 years. “We are very strict with our vaccine requirements, so when we saw just a few dogs coughing while others weren’t, we knew we had to alert our clients as well as get assistance from local veterinarians,” she said. “I called Dr. Lori Walker, DVM of Animal Hospital of Sussex County in Augusta, and within 48 hours had six to eight coughing dogs quarantined and tested.”Dr. Walker performed nasal and oral swabs of the stricken dogs and sent the samples to Dr. Christopher Frye, DVM, DACVSMR of Cornell University who performed a complete respiratory panel serology to try to determine the cause of the coughing. Serology is the diagnostic identification of antibodies in the serum of any type of bodily fluid.The test results came back quickly and it was determined that three of the six samples sent tested positive for Parainfluenza, which is normally covered by the DHPP and Bordetella vaccines, something that Pet Spa and most boarding facilities, groomers and dog parks require. So, the results left Wilkins with more questions than answers as to why only some of the dogs at her facility were affected.The answer, as all the veterinarians involved came to agree, was that the dogs were infected by a mutated form of Parainfluenza. Not to be confused with Canine Influenza, Parainfluenza is similar to humans getting the common cold. A mutated strain of Parainfluenza means that dogs will not have developed any immunity until they have been exposed. Only then can they produce the necessary antibodies to protect themselves. Even if a dog has received its regular DHPP or DTAP (Distemper, Hepatitis, Parainfluenza and Parvovirus) and Bordetella (Canine Infectious Tracheobronchitis; a.k.a. “Kennel Cough”) vaccines, the mutated virus can still be contagious, often before it is symptomatic. Fortunately, the Parainfluenza virus is not life threatening. Dogs typically show symptoms (hacking cough, runny nose and eyes) about three to 10 days after exposure. Symptoms usually resolve between six and 14 days. From the onset of the infected dogs, Wilkins transparently took to her website and Facebook page alerting clients and the general community that there was some type of cough going around and that they were doing everything to determine what it was as they disinfected and sanitized the facility. “I have been getting first-hand knowledge of kennels, dog parks and veterinary practices throughout the country that are also dealing with a rapidly spreading outbreak of ‘canine cough,’” she said. “We are sharing the results of our testing to help others who are dealing with this illness in an effort to help the canine community everywhere, not just at The Pet Spa. My goal is and always has been the health, happiness and well being of all dogs, not just the dogs at my facility.”The Pet Spa has documented every symptomatic dog and absorbed the cost of veterinary care antibiotics for dogs in their facility. More serum samples will be sent to Cornell and studied further, possibly for pharmaceutical companies to create a new vaccine for this mutated viral strain.CBS 19 News out of Charlottesville, Virginia reported that at least 22 dogs seen at Autumn Trails Veterinary Center have had the same symptoms since last Thursday, and that all the dogs were “well-vaccinated.” The clinic is also running tests to determine the cause.“From what we’ve seen this is becoming an epidemic, possibly starting in North Carolina and moving up the East Coast,” said Dr. Ted Spinks, from the Animal Hospital of Sussex County, locared in Hampton Township. Spinks is a veterinarian for 37 years who also specializes in epidemiology. “The best precautions that dog owners can take are keeping up on their vaccines and making sure they are administered correctly, by a veterinarian or technician. I recommend boosting your dog’s DHPP/DTAP/DAP and Bordetella vaccines to build immunity. I would also be cautious about dog parks and make sure that vaccines are done at least two weeks before taking your dog anywhere around other dogs.”Spinks has had professional experiences with the Parvovirus epidemic in Florida and a Rabies epidemic in Pennsylvania. He has also done extensive research on tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease, which is also a current epidemic.“This mutated form of Parainfluenza has spread like wildfire and it is difficult to deal with as it is contagious up to three days before the dog becomes symptomatic,” Spinks said.Barb Green, president of Dogs of Vernon dog park said, “While this is going around it’s best to avoid dog parks. We have shared the Pet Spa’s message on our Facebook page to warn people and to make sure their dogs are up to date on vaccines. Unfortunately, there’s no way to determine which dogs are vaccinated at the park, it is an ‘At Your Own Risk’ environment.”Spinks recommended that all dogs parks should at least post a sign citing the town ordinance for vaccine protocols so that people are more aware of their importance. Boarding facilities and groomers often have strict vaccine requirements which is why they are the least likely source of contagion. However, in this recent case, the mutated strain of virus seems to be resistant to vaccines.“Lynn and her staff are doing everything they can and they’re not ‘pulling the wool over people’s eyes,” Spinks said. “I have been there every day since this occurred and their disinfection protocol is top-notch. They even replaced all ventilation filters, as the virus is airborne. At this time I would have no problem at all boarding my own dog there.”“My staff is going above and beyond, working up to fifteen hours a day to ensure the highest level of care and cleanest environment for all the dogs in our care as we always do. I applaud their efforts and dedication,” Wilkins said. The Pet Spa has also emailed and messaged over 240 local veterinarians and kennels alerting them to the outbreak and are still calling customers with upcoming reservations, stating that they have cases of Parainfluenza. Most clients at this point are keeping their reservations, Wilkins said.