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Her dog died from a respiratory illness. Now she’s trying to help others.

Maltese Chikis who lived in Washington state. She died at 10-years-old after complications with a respiratory illness.
Maltese Chikis who lived in Washington state. She died at 10-years-old after complications with a respiratory illness.

Chikis was a 10-year-old Maltese, whose human described her as a "silly goose" that loved cuddling.

She also loved playing with her toys, and every time the humans came home she would greet them with toy so that they would have to play her with her, dog owner Mariana Chavez told USA TODAY.

But in late August, Chikis started developing respiratory issues that became so bad she had difficulty breathing. The vets found her lungs were filling with fluid, something that meds temporarily helped her recover from, Chavez said.

Sadly on Nov. 2, Chikis passed away at home.

Her death comes amid reports of spikes in dog respiratory illnesses popping up around North America. Experts say the outbreaks, which show symptoms similar kennel cough, may be a bad case of a routine illness. Still, vets around the country are saying that typical treatments often do not work.

Without a centralized reporting agency for canine disease, they may not be able to get complete data on the illness. Now, Chavez is searching for answers herself.

See the graphics: What is the mysterious respiratory illness affecting dogs across the US?

Maltese Chikis who lived in Washington state. She died at 10-years-old after complications with a respiratory illness.
Maltese Chikis who lived in Washington state. She died at 10-years-old after complications with a respiratory illness.

What we know and what we don't know about the "mystery illness"

Oregon deemed a dog respiratory illness a "mystery" after more than 200 cases starting over the summer led to some fatalities among dogs that did not respond to usual antibiotics.

The American Veterinary Medical Association said in a release Friday it is monitoring reports of similar illnesses in multiple states and the infectious agent is under investigation, USA TODAY previously reported.

Data compiled from state agencies and pet insurance company Trupanion suggest that cases of dog respiratory illness are up in at least 15 states and two Canadian provinces. There could be several causes of severe respiratory illness, experts say.

Dr. Scott Weese, an expert in emerging animal disease and author of a blog popular among state veterinarians, said that there are several changes among the dog population that could be causing the bump in cases. For example, the pandemic brought a larger dog population, disruptions to routine vaccine schedules, and fewer exposures as dogs stayed home with their parents.

Without funding for case surveillance or widespread testing, the exact number of cases or rate of death from respiratory illnesses is unknown.

'Thank you for trying to help others in your grief'

After Chikis passed away in her home near the Oregon border of Washington state, Chavez still rushed her to the veterinarian to see if there was anything they could do.

"They didn't know," she said. "They couldn't provide me with answers."

It wasn't until she saw a viral TikTok story about an Oregon animal sanctuary that experienced an outbreak of dog respiratory illness that she starting to look for more information.

She found discussions about it in a group for show dog owners, but wanted to find others in the general public. So she created a Facebook group, inviting people from pet loss support groups she was in and encouraged people whose story felt similar to hers to share.

The group discussion with nearly 450 people covers questions about how to keep dogs safe, how the symptoms progress in different cases and whether there is disease going around in the area.

Dr. Weese said that social media can be a bit of a double-edged sword for gauging illness in an area, as one sick dog might get disproportionate attention.

And as is the case across social networks, misguided suggestions for treatments and medications for such illnesses have spread among the online community.

But amidst the questions are comments of support for others struggling with losing a pet.

"I’m so so sorry for your loss. Thank you for trying to help others in your grief," one Facebook user commented on Chavez's post about the group.

Vets' tips to keep dogs healthy among respiratory illness outbreaks

As veterinarians and other experts try to learn what they can about this respiratory illness season, they suggest that pet owners approach pet care as they would with a human cold.

While a slight cough wouldn't send an otherwise healthy person to the emergency room, it may be cause for concern of developing into something dangerous if the person is at a vulnerable age or has other health complications.

Here are other tips from veterinarians for keeping your dog healthy:

  • Ensure vaccinations are up to date .

  • Limit exposures with other dogs, especially with unknown medical statuses.

  • Take extra care if your dog is high risk, including senior dogs, very young dogs, flat-faced dogs, and dogs with existing heart or lung disease.

Chavez hopes that veterinarians do more research and proactively communicate with their clients about what is happening.

"I did lose (Chikis), but I do feel like more people know know about it now," Chavez said. "More precautions can be taken, more dogs can be saved."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Woman searches for answers after losing dog to respiratory illness