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Dysautonomia affects young ranch dogs

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

According to Wyoming State Veterinary Lab pathologist Donal O’Toole, dysautonomia – a fatal disease found in young ranch dogs – is under-diagnosed by Wyoming vets.

“Once a vet has seen it, and it’s been confirmed, they’ll recognize it again, because the clinical signs are so distinctive,” states O’Toole.

Laurie Rowe, who lives west of Casper, recently saw the disease in one of her stock dogs.

“We took her to the vet, who thought she had a bowel obstruction, so we gave her an enema and IV, but she kept getting sicker and sicker,” says Rowe. “At that point we put her in the car and took to her Colorado State University.”

Rowe says that soon after their arrival the vets at CSU had diagnosed her dog with dysautonomia.

O’Toole says he typically sees dysautonomia in single cases, but that he occasionally sees small episodes.

“The most we’ve seen are three cases on one property, and a vet in Cheyenne recently saw two on one property,” he says. “Generally, the cases look clustered when they’re on a map, but that’s really because those vets who’ve seen it before keep seeing it.”

“It’s not a common disease, but it’s not rare,” says O’Toole. “In those states where people are educated and word has gotten out, we might see 15 or 20 cases per year.”

O’Toole describes dysautonomia as a very interesting disease, for which nobody has identified a cause.

“The first thing to do is to figure out what’s causing it, and several people have taken a pretty hard run at this,” says O’Toole. “There was a clinical neurologist in a vet school in Missouri who published a paper in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, but he did not nail down the cause.”

O’Toole says the research did identify that the disease tends to occur in young, rural dogs, and one suspicion is that is has to do with exposure to some type of agricultural chemicals.

He adds that there is some limited evidence that a similar disease in horses known as grass sickness, which is common in parts of Europe, England and Ireland, may be related. He says there’s also some evidence that dysautonomia may in some way be related to botulism, similar to what occurs in horses, but that hasn’t been proven.

“When the dogs have full-blown clinical signs, there are some medications that can be taken to help the dogs urinate, and there are several compounds that can be used to help ameliorate the signs,” notes O’Toole.

The disease’s clinical signs include difficulty swallowing, dry eye, flaccid anus and difficulty urinating.

“What it does is knock out the automatic, non-thinking part of the nervous system,” explains O’Toole.

“I wonder if it could be infectious,” says O’Toole. “Everyone’s hung up on the notion that it’s got to be a chemical, but we tried isolating the virus from the affected tissue and we never got a virus out. What the disease really needs is a graduate student to take this on as a research project – someone who has the time and patience to tackle this as a disease.”

Until the disease’s cause is known for sure, O’Toole suggests keeping ag chemicals on shelves – sealed and away from animals – as well as protecting yourself and your dog while you’re spraying, whether you’re using herbicides or insecticides.

No matter the cause, O’Toole says the disease kills nerve cells in the tissues affected, and that once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.

“That’s why, if a dog has severe clinical signs, the prognosis has to be pretty guarded,” notes O’Toole.

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘common,’ but this disease does occur sporadically, and it is a devastating disease if your dog gets it, because you will lose your dog, and it will be a young dog,” says O’Toole.

“I just want people to be aware of this disease, because it was such a tragic loss to us with that little dog, and I hope that other people won’t have the tragedy that we did,” says Rowe of her personal experience with the disease.

Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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