BRUCELLOSIS, a test of faith

     The evening I returned from a business/hunting trip and catching a cold from the extremely cold weather, I noticed a call from the veterinarian I used to pull all the Brucellosis tests from my whole kennel.  (I decided to dip real deep into my pockets and get EVERYTHING BAER, CERF, and Brucellosis tested so the owner of any bitch that was shipped in for breeding would feel totally comfortable with my breeding operation.)  The tests were drawn 4 days before, so I was anxious to hear that the last of my inspections would give me a documented CLEAN & HEALTHY kennel.
     I called Dr. Ruth the next morning and she was busy, so I left my name & phone number for her to call me back.  An hour later, I ran back into the house from the kennel to answer the phone.  "Cheryl, this is Dr. Ruth and I have some very bad news for you."  Tears started flowing from my eyes; my whole body became numb; my legs collapsed as I dropped into a chair while Dr. Ruth was explaining what was recommended I do with my 1 positive and 4 suspect terriers.
     I literally ran out to the kennel in panic.  I was separating dogs, hauling clorox to the pens and scrubbing them down.  My  husband drove by and asked if I wanted to go to dinner.  I was in such shock and panic that I snapped in anger.  My son that hunts with me, came out and could tell I was literally crazy.  "Mom, what's wrong; please tell me?  Is something wrong with Tracy?  Why is she at the barn?"  I couldn't even speak.
     Two more trips were made to redraw blood.  For 2 weeks I couldn't hardly speak to anyone.  I finally broke down and told my family.  What I had worked so hard for, what I had prayed for, what was my salvation from the horse fall that ended my horse showing career, was being taken away from me too.  And above all, THE MOST CRUSHING THOUGHT was knowing that I had probably whiped out the kennels of all my new found friends that had put their trust in me to bring my dogs to their homes; who shared their hunting grounds that was now contaminated!  God only knows how tough it was on  me.  My family thought they had lost me for good.  Dr. Ruth had told me that mistakes are made occasionally, that Brucellosis is not "Cut & Dry" and that the more she was investigating into this disease, the more she was finding out how little the veterinarians and universities know about it.
     I prayed, I cried, I asked God "Why?"  On Friday the 13th, I was at the kennel scrubbing floors when I received a call from Dr. Ruth.  "Cheryl, the test results were "ALL" negative.  I'm so sorry for the error in your original results".  I collapsed to my knees thanking God for his bountiful blessings.  The tears still flow even as I write this "faith testing" story on paper.  Friday the 13th, the supposedly unlucky day, I was also told that I had been approved for my "A" working judges position.  Ha, this is MY lucky day!
     This is a testimony for those of you who have not tested your dogs; please do so, but if your results don't come back negative the first time, don't panic until further tests are done.  The stress can be more than you can stand!

Cheryl Hart
December, 1996

Dr. Ruth Wilburn's response:

by Dr. Ruth Wilburn

     The thought of Brucellosis in a breeding kennel is terrifying.  As a veterinarian I have always recommended to my breeders that they test their breeding dogs and require a negative Brucellosis test for any dog brought into their kennel for breeding.  Any time I have encountered reproductive problems like abortions, low fertility, etc., I have advised checking for Brucellosis.
     This breeder decided to test all of her kennel for Brucellosis as a matter of routine.  No dogs were showing or had shown any signs of illiness or reproductive problems that would make us think that Brucellosis was a problem.  I drew blood on 13 dogs in her kennel.  All dogs were 10 months old or older and even included spayed or neutered dogs.  The blood was sent to our local veterinary lab who routinely sends these out to another lab.
     There has been a problem with the tests for Brucellosis recently.  The only approved test for Brucellosis was a rapid slide agglutination test manufactured by Pitman Moore (now Mallinkrodt).  This test could be easily run in the veterinarian's office or any laboratory.  However, this test not uncommonly produced some false positive results.  A second test, usually a tube agglutination test, would be run to verify these results. Manufacture of this rapid slide agglutination test has been discontinued for some time now.  Any tests for Brucellosis now have to be sent out to a lab that can do some other test - usually the tube agglutination test.  This test reports results as a titer.  Any titer of 1:200 or greater is considered positive and titers of less that 1:200 are considered suspect.  No titer indicates a negative test.  Our lab had had problems earlier in the year with one outside lab that was reporting many false positives.  So Brucellosis tests were now being sent to the State diagnostic lab (C.E. Kord Lab - Nashville, TN).
     When I received the results on these dogs I was shocked.  I had one dog that was positive at 1:200 and four were suspect at 1:50.  What should I do when these animals were showing no clinical signs?  The clinical pathologist at our local lab recommended treating with antibiotics and then retesting.  I decided to check with the experts before doing anything.  (I had a personal interest in the outcome of these results - I was to pick up a puppy sired by one of her dogs in the next few weeks.)
     I read several current articles on Brucellosis but they only addressed dogs in kennels with clinical signs.  The articles stated that the Brucella canis organism can stay hidden for weeks and even months in varying tissues in the body.  Titers usually become detectable 8 to 12 weeks after infection.  Antibody titers remain high (1:400 to 1:3200) as long as the organism is circulating the bloodstream.  When circulation of the Brucella canis organism only intermittently occurs or subsides as it does with chronic infection, then antibody titers decline and may become equivocal (1:50 to 1:200) or negative.  However, the organism still persists in infected tissues.  In some animals there are fluctuations in titers depending on whether or not there are circulating Brucella organisms.  Therefore the level of the titer does not necessarily reflect the stage of the disease nor do declining titers indicate recovery from infection.  Treating the affected dogs with antibiotics could cloud any future testing.  How would you know if the titers decreased due to treatment or because we may have had a false positive on the first test?
     I called our local veterinary school - Mississippi State College of Veterinary Medicine.  I was advised by them to consult with either Dr. Paul Nicoletti at the University of Florida or Dr. Cheri Johnson at Michigan State.  The microbiologist at Mississippi State should also be consulted.
     I was able to reach Dr. Cheri Johnson at Michigan State first.  First she advised not to treat the dogs with antibiotics and to isolate the dog with the 1:200 titer as a precautionary measure.  Retesting of the dogs with suspect or positive titers should be done.  This blood should be sent to Cornell University* for a AGID (agar gel immunodifusion) test.  Cornell is considered the top lab for doing Brucellosis testing by most people in the field.  One of the suspect dogs was a breeding male and she suggested culturing the semen.  Culturing the blood for the Brucella organism in the positive (1:200) dog was also an option.
     Dr. F. W. Austin, the microbiologist at Mississippi State, was then consulted.  He said that all tests for Brucellosis had much room for error.  Culturing blood to get the Brucella organism was difficult at best even if the dog had a high titer.  Culturing semen was somewhat easier but it was still difficult to find the organism.  Dr. Austin indicated that there were still some false positives associated with the tube agglutination test and that one positive or suspect test should not be considered evidence of Brucellosis.  The AGID test is the most specific serologic test currently available.  He reiterated Dr. Johnson's feeling that Cornell should be the one to run the test.  Another test - an ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) test is also good but there is a very limited availablity of this test.
     After talking with Dr. Austin, I ruled out culturing the semen of the suspect dog.  The male was a shy breeder and would be difficult to collect.  I also decided to wait on culturing the blood of the positive dog.  I would send blood samples for the AGID test on the positive dog first.  A clean serum sample was sent on ice by Federal Express.  Two days later I called Cornell and was told that the AGID test was negative as well as a tube agglutination test they run at the same time.  What a relief!  Blood samples from the four suspect dogs were then sent.  Again the AGID and tube agglutination tests were all negative.
     Although I earned a few extra gray hairs over this ordeal, it was a learning experience.  First, no matter what test is run for Brucellosis, if the test comes back positive (especially if the dog show no clinical signs), have the dog tested again using at least one other test.  Be firm in requiring that dogs coming into your kennel have a negative Brucellosis test.  And last, but not least, any problem like this should be dealt with quickly with the help of your veterinarian and other experts.
*    Diagnostic Laboratory - New York State College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University, P. O. Box 5786, Ithaca, NY  14852-5786
Phone: 607-253-3900, Fax: 607-253-3943.

Ruth Wilburn, D.V.M.
10368 Goodman Road
Olive Branch, MS   38654

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