LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — Alan and Venice Beske took their English setter puppy to the veterinarian after he quit eating and began vomiting.
The Hawk Springs residents had their puppy, Sage, for about 10 months. They figured the sickness was one of many minor ailments puppies tend to pick up, and didn't think much of it at first.
Upon examining Sage, however, Stephen Kerr, their vet in Torrington, suspected something worse. Kerr likely saw that Sage had dilated pupils, a crusty nose, squinty eyes and intractable vomiting.
During that first visit, Kerr didn't tell the Beskes he thought Sage could have contracted canine dysautonomia — a new, mostly fatal and sporadic disease that destroys dogs' autonomic nervous system — because, as Alan Beske put it, "the diagnosis is pretty much a death sentence."
Kerr treated Sage and sent him back home with the Beskes, but the puppy's condition continued to deteriorate. Five days later, the Beskes had Sage euthanized.
Three days after that, on March 11, 2004, Bailey, another one of their English setters, came down with the same symptoms. Bailey's health went downhill just as rapidly. The dog was vomiting and having trouble eating and controlling his bowels.
"He might have lasted a little longer," said Venice Beske. "But since Sage had gone through a fair amount of suffering without improving, we had Bailey euthanized a little sooner, so he wouldn't go through that."
The Beskes put Bailey down March 17, about a week after he showed symptoms.
A decade later, Venice Beske said it's still painful to think about that spring — putting one puppy down, turning around and putting another down not 10 days later.
"It was devastating," she said. "You feel so totally helpless about it."
But the Beskes' travails didn't stop with Bailey.
In December 2005, another one of their English setters, Grace, contracted canine dysautonomia. Grace died of complications from the disease in the first week of January 2006, roughly 10 days after showing symptoms.
Remembering the events, the Beskes said it was terrible to see their pets in pain.
"Any animal that you love — if you have a dog, you know how it is — it's just hard to watch them suffer," Venice Beske said.
In May 2012, two researchers from the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory at the University of Wyoming traveled to Hawk Springs to speak with the Beskes and collect soil samples of their land.
The UW researchers were veterinarians Donal O'Toole and Brant Schumaker, and they were part of a team — including Noah Hull, UW Ph.D. student — that had been studying the occurrence of canine dysautonomia since the early 2000s.
At the time, the UW researchers already knew Alan and Venice Beske. They had spoken with Kerr, who has since died, and the Beskes had sent their dogs' carcasses to the UW Veterinary Lab to confirm the clinical diagnosis.
The UW researchers scheduled the trip to collect case material and add it to a bank of samples related to canine dysautonomia — a collection of tissues, blood and soil samples that has grown steadily since the disease's discovery.
A veterinarian in Glenrock diagnosed the first U.S. case of the disease in 1989, which was later reported in 1991.
The disease attacks the part of a dog's nervous system that regulates many body organs, including the heart and digestive tract, O'Toole said.
"Basically, the nerve cells that control subconscious function, like how your intestines work, how your heart beats, how your pupils work, your bladder function — they just crash," he said. "So, dogs no longer can control their normal bodily functions, and they'll typically present with vomiting, weight loss, dilated pupils (and difficulties with their bowels.)"
As the disease progresses, it can also cause incoordination of the hind legs.
The UW researchers confirm the disease with post-mortem necropsies, marking the annihilation of the animals' nerve cells by viewing samples of tissues — such as bundles of nerves near the adrenal gland — under microscopes.
Once a case is confirmed, they record the location on a Wyoming map.
From 2004 to the present, the UW researchers confirmed about 30 cases and identified a handful of clinical suspects in 11 Wyoming counties. The disease has clustered in Sheridan, Campbell, Goshen and Laramie counties. One case — dating back to 2004 — was discovered in Albany County.
Canine dysautonomia is also much more prevalent in Kansas and Missouri, where researchers might diagnose more than 100 cases a year, Schumaker said.
Although the disease is not as common in Wyoming, the UW researchers are seeking information because it's 90 percent fatal.
The few dogs that do survive often have permanent neurological damage, making it difficult to swallow, urinate or defecate, among other problems.
The disease is particularly disheartening for owners, the UW researchers said, because it attacks puppies and juveniles. Most affected dogs are younger than 24 months, Hull said.
"Not only is it devastating to have these episodes, but then when you have the recurring episode, the owners have to relive it," he said.
"Something we've heard from owners is, 'I'm not going to get dogs anymore.' So, there's just this kind of panic and fear."
As of yet, researchers don't have a cure, can't slow it down and don't know what triggers it.
But, after reviewing studies and case material over the years, they now think they've got a lead.
In March, Hull and Schumaker drove out to a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, to visit Susan Foster and gather samples and data on a sad but intriguing case of canine dysautonomia.
Early this year, Susan Foster's dog had a litter of five Havanese puppies. Three of the puppies sold, and one, named Cuddles, was picked up by the new owners March 9.
After Cuddles left, Foster took the remaining four puppies out to play in a section of her yard.
Foster had been gardening at the time and had scattered garden soil on the patch where the puppies played. Her other dogs didn't have access to the area.
The next weekend, new owners came to pick up two puppies, and Foster kept the other two. Midweek, she got a call from one of the new owners: "Their puppy was lethargic, had a runny nose and was dragging her hind legs," Foster said.
In the next few days, four of the five puppies came down with the same symptoms.
Foster's vet ran the tests for canine dysautonomia, and their clinical signs were consistent with the disease.
Both of Foster's puppies died March 24 — about two weeks after playing in the yard.
Foster then called the other two owners to let them know the diagnosis. Their puppies also tested positive and were subsequently put down.
"It was probably one of the most traumatic episodes in my life," Foster said. "I mean, not just my own puppies, but having to inform the other two families that had purchased these brand new puppies that they'd already fallen in love with — it was terrible."
The disease can't be definitively diagnosed until after death. The UW researchers later confirmed the clinical diagnosis in the lab.
What fascinated them most, however, was that Cuddles, the dog who didn't go outside, was fine.
He remains in good health to this day, Foster said.
The case of Cuddles was consistent with an observation the researchers had been making for some time.
Oftentimes dogs become affected after romping around in, or consuming, disturbed soil. Foster's litter begged the question: Did something in the soil of that particular patch of land trigger the disease?
"It's been recognized in multiple states to be associated with disturbed soil," Schumaker said. "Commonly, some sort of home-improvement project is taking place on that property. So, if they're digging a swimming pool, postholes for a deck, installing a satellite dish, a fence — within a few weeks, an animal will come down with the disease."
The Beskes often took their dogs for walks on 66 Mountain, near their Hawk Springs property.
"The only thing in common with all three of the dogs was Venice took them up for a walk on 66 Mountain," Alan Beske said. "She took them up there, and they got sick after that."
Alan Beske said 66 Mountain is subject to water erosion and cattle grazing, which could cause microbes to rise to the surface.
The UW researchers note the soil is a hunch. But several factors line up to make it a strong one.
For example, although the disease seems to affect dogs of various breeds, most cases are outdoor breeds, such as border collies, heelers and Labradors.
"We don't know whether it's some sort of manmade product in the soil or — more likely — some sort of bacterial or microbial product in the soil — either the actual bacterium itself or the toxins that the bacteria might produce," Schumaker said.
He compared isolating a cause within the soil to hunting for a needle in a haystack.
"Soil is very full of life," Schumaker said. "There's a large amount of normal microbes that live in soil. It's an even bigger haystack than the case material. So, it's probably easier to start with case material."
As they continue to grow the sample bank, the UW researchers will have more material from which to draw conclusions.
"The way we have to do it is get enough case material to compare the samples from affected dogs to see if there's any sort of a link," Schumaker said. "Then you can compare those to animals that aren't affected to see if we have our smoking gun."
The researchers don't want to unduly alarm owners or propose that pets be kept indoors. Rather, they're hoping people in the state begin to take notice and, when possible, send information, carcasses, blood or samples from suspect cases to the UW Veterinary Lab to help build case material.
If the UW researchers are able to find a cause, they could make recommendations for prevention, treatment or even a cure.
Another option would be to assign it as a project for a graduate student, O'Toole said.
But finding a cause could be a long ways off.
"The jigsaw puzzle is scattered," Schumaker said. "We're just starting to get the border filled in."
Information from: Laramie Boomerang, http://www.laramieboomerang.com