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UW works to shed light on disease

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Canine dysautonomia (CD) has been shrouded in mystery since its discovery in the early 1990s. 

University of Wyoming (UW) researcher Brant Schumaker is trying to determine the cause of the often-fatal disease to better prepare veterinarians and dog owners to treat the disease. 

Canine dysautonomia 

“To be put simply, CD causes dogs to lose control of subconscious bodily functions such as urination, digestion, heart rate and eye dilation,” Schumaker explains. “The disease attacks the neurons in the body that control these functions.”

He explains some of the earliest signs of the disease are a lack of appetite and regurgitation, but these symptoms also present with a number of other common illnesses in dogs. 

“The disease moves very quickly,” Schumaker says. “Some cases will go downhill within a few days and others may persist weeks.” 

Schumaker comments the length of the disease is dependent on a variety of factors including individual susceptibility and differential exposure to the cause of the disease. 

“It was previously believed the disease had an over 90 percent fatality rate,” Schumaker explains. “But with more recent clinical experience we’ve learned that, if animals avoid serious complications, there can be as low as 50 percent fatality.”

According to Schumaker, CD does not show preference to different breeds of dogs. It was first reported in the United Kingdom in the 1980s and in the United States in Wyoming in the early 1990s.

The disease is also geographically isolated with documented cases in the Midwest, spanning as far west as Wyoming and east into Kentucky. 


“We don’t currently know what causes CD,” Schumaker says. “We have looked for consistent patterns in the affected areas and haven’t been able to determine the cause.” 

He explains the cause could be a number of things, from bacteria to fungus or even soil features unique to the affected areas. 

“The disease is commonly associated with outside dogs who have exposure to wildlife and livestock,” Schumaker says. “While the wildlife and livestock persist outside the affected area, the disease does not, which leads us to believe the root cause is in the environment.” 

He comments while there is some evidence of horizontal dog-to-dog transmission, it is more likely the disease is picked up in the environment. 

“Even in the cases where it appears one dog catches it from another, we believe the contaminant was on the dog’s fur, and the second dog caught it that way and not necessarily through transmission,” Schumaker explains. 

Species to species

He explains while there are similar dysautonomia diseases in other species, it does not appear as though the disease is transmissible between animals. 

“There are other similar diseases in other species, such as Key Gaskell Syndrome in cats, but they aren’t the same,” says Schumaker. “We have yet to see an instance where multiple species on the same property were affected.”

“Finding the cause of CD is the number one goal in our research,” he says. “Once we figure out the cause, we can formulate treatment plans and give recommendations to practitioners on how to effectively treat it.” 


“Dogs have this amazing ability to compensate for neurological damage and continue normal function,” Schumaker explains. “Those that are able to survive this disease can maintain quality of life depending on the scope of neurological damage.” 

He explains since there isn’t a known cause of the disease, there isn’t a vaccine or specific treatment for affected animals. Various forms of supportive care are used to treat sick dogs. 

“We have to keep them alive long enough for their bodies to begin compensating for the losses,” he says. “Effort from the owners is critical.” 

“Depending on the signs, vets will use appropriate supportive care to keep the dog alive,” says Schumaker. “Supportive care comes in the form of nutrition or different types of drugs that maintain digestion, urination and defecation.” 


“One of the biggest roadblocks we have with our research is funding,” Schumaker says. “While the disease affects hundreds of dogs in the region annually, it just hasn’t been raised to national attention like canine heart disease and cancer.”  

He explains how the tests they run on samples from affected dogs can cost in the ballpark of $1,000 per sample. Without the attention from national organizations, the team has had to take a more grassroots approach to solving this issue. 

“We have a lot of people who are interested and willing to help solve the mystery of what causes this disease,” he says, “but we are pushing to get more funding for our research.” 

“We are relaunching the effort to find the cause, come up with a diagnostic test and ultimately find a treatment,” Schumaker says. 

Callie Hanson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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