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Canine dysautonomia is killing dogs and no one knows why

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It’s a disease that was first diagnosed in a dog in the UK in 1983. The second case popped up in the state of Wyoming in 1991.

And how it got from the UK to the US? Nobody knows.

In fact, no one knows a whole lot about canine dysautonomia (CD),a usually fatal disease that causes the degeneration within the enteric, peripheral, central, somatic, and autonomic nervous systems, which regulate subconscious bodily functions such swallowing, evacuation, breathing, and even the beating of the heart.

Among the many things we don’t know about CD is what causes it. We do know that, in the US, it’s seen mostly in rural, midwestern states such as Kansas, Missouri, and Wyoming; that it’s more prevalent in dogs who spend more than half their time outside; and that it seems to affect younger dogs—with the average age being three years old at the time of diagnosis.

Because the condition makes it impossible for the body to regulate the heartbeat, temperature, blood pressure, and breathing, the condition is usually fatal, and typically ends in euthanasia, although in rare cases some dogs recover after a few months of aggressive treatment.

Brant Schumaker, DVM, MPVM, PhD, a researcher with the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory at the University of Wyoming with a special interest in CD, said that while CD is an “extremely serious” disease with a 92% mortality rate, “It’s not always a death sentence. [But] early diagnosis is key to improving chances of survival.”

The disease is frequently misdiagnosed and treated as a respiratory or gastrointestinal condition due to the appearance of the initial symptoms, which include:

  • Vomiting or regurgitation, especially if severe or long-lasting
  • Dilated pupils
  • Low or absent anal tone
  • Diarrhea
  • Straining and/or difficulty urinating or defecating
  • Distended bladder
  • Decreased tear production
  • Protrusion of third eyelid

As for treatment, Schumaker writes in a CD fact sheet for pet owners that treatment plans should be developed in consultation with a veterinarian and should be targeted to improve GI motility, urinary continence, nutrition, and hydration. He also notes that, “There is no evidence that alternative therapies such as CBD or essential oils are effective at treating CD.”

According to data collected by Schumaker and his team in 2017, Kansas City and its surrounding areas reported the highest number of cases of CD anywhere in the country. Again, no one is sure why.

And it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to find out soon.

Susan Foster, a CD activist who’s worked with Schumaker to spread the word about CD, told NEWStat that funding for Schumaker’ s formal research program was depleted a few years ago. “Any research since then has been done by him and his lab staff as time permits, [which] basically means during brief lapses between funded projects or on their own time.” Foster says the lab has hundreds of frozen samples—tissue, blood, and soil—waiting to be tested, but no money to test them. “The cost to test one sample can be as high as $1,000.”

Foster also manages the CD Awareness Facebook group, Facebook page, which raises CD awareness and does fundraising for future CD research—mostly, she says, because there’s no other funding available: “Normal funding sources—such as grants—have not been available due to CD’s classification as ‘regional’ and ‘rare.’” Foster said a two-year, full-time CD research program would cost $100,000—a goal that her grassroots fundraising efforts haven’t reached.

And that’s bad news for the future of dogs who contract CD. “To our knowledge, there is currently no other research program in progress anywhere else in the US,” Foster said.

Photo credit: © iStock/Kateryna Kukota