FLORENCE - Veterinarian Dr. Madison Hayward has euthanized many animals over her career. While it can be the hardest part of her job, she knows it will end the animal’s suffering. When it came time to put down her own dog Aspen, however, it was much different.
Aspen was a two-year-old family dog who seemed perfectly healthy and happy on the outside, but on the inside, she held a harmful bacteria that could have infected Dr. Hayward or her daughter. The bacteria is called brucella and its disease is brucellosis.
Brucella is zoonotic, meaning it can be transferred between dogs and humans. Many infected dogs will remain asymptomatic and appear perfectly healthy, like Aspen, but they are still able to transmit it to other dogs or humans who may get really sick.
The bacteria can be transferred in many different ways. It spreads through reproductive tissue and fluids, urine, feces, and secretion from the nose or eyes. Urine can remain contaminated for months, leaving grass and snow a breeding ground for transmission.
Previously, it was assumed only dogs in large shelters or kennels and dogs non-spayed or neutered could be infected with brucella, but that is not true. Any dog is susceptible, and any place may be contaminated.
Aspen never went to the dog park and rarely had contact with dogs or humans outside of her family. Dr. Hayward says she is unsure of where she could have been infected.
Symptoms of brucellosis in dogs include stillbirths, difficulties getting pregnant or getting other dogs pregnant, stiffness, back pain, and skin or eye infections.
The worst part of this disease is how untreatable it is. For dogs who test positive, the only treatment option is an intensive, four to eight-week antibiotic program which can be expensive and can lead to kidney failure or other future health issues. It is also possible that the antibiotics won’t work at all.
Even if there is success with antibiotic treatment, the brucella bacteria never fully leaves the pet’s body, so relapse is common. They will have to be routinely tested for the rest of their lives.
Some states require euthanasia after a positive brucella test, and most other veterinarians recommend it, according to Dr. Hayward. It is not required in Montana, but Euthanasia can prevent family members or other dogs from becoming infected.
If a family chooses not to euthanize or treat their dog who has a positive result, the dog must be placed in permanent quarantine. There can be no contact with other dogs. Urine and feces must be contained so as to not contaminate the grass.
Children, seniors, or other immunocompromised family members can not come in contact with the pet. People outside the family, even the mailman, cannot have contact with the dog either.
A brucella-positive dog can spread the bacteria to humans. Brucella will live in humans much the same way as dogs — never really leaving the body and having life-long effects.
Brucella is under detected in humans because testing is not very accurate or advanced. Plus, the list of human symptoms is wide, with many flu-like similarities. Short-term symptoms can include anorexia, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, headache, muscle pain and fatigue, while chronic symptoms may include recurring fevers, arthritis, swelling of the heart, spleen or liver, and depression.
Dogs can contract the bacteria almost anywhere, so there is little owners can do to protect their pets from brucella. Testing may be the best hope for slowing the spread of this disease.
Dr. Hayward — who owns Florence Animal Hospital — stresses the importance of testing for brucella. She says people looking to adopt from a breeder should make sure the breeder has up-to-date tests on the parents, and dog owners should regularly test their pets.
Brucella tests can be around $100, and most vets will perform them if asked, but Dr. Hayward wants to make it easier. She has started a GoFundMe called “Aspen’s Fund.” The money she raises will be used to help people pay for their pet’s brucella test at Florence Animal Hospital.
She hopes families around Montana will hear her story and understand the importance of brucella canis education.