Brucellosis - It can change your life

What if one day you woke up and someone told you that all your dogs had to be destroyed? As in dead; deceased.  This person states that your dog has an incurable disease  which is highly contagious and that every dog who tests positive has to be destroyed? Just stop, look down at your dog or dogs and just imagine.

Sound like an awful nightmare? Sound impossible? It’s not.   There is such a disease in dogs and it’s called Brucellosis.

Breeders all think that it can’t happen to them. It’s a rare disease, it happens to “OTHER PEOPLE”, not to them. It’s one of those diseases that all breeders have heard about, but most of us only know just a bit about it - enough to be scared.   So most test before they breed, confident in knowing that there is no way their dogs could have it.   

But what happens when the breath is knocked out of you? It happened to me. Before I continue this true story, I’d like to explain why I‘m willing to discuss such a frightening disease. I battled telling the story as even breathing the word Brucellosis negative or not - can scare breeders into early graves. I think it’s important to share such things with others. But this story is to tell you why persistence, knowledge and standing your ground CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

In this case, a life or death difference.

I was taking my Champion male in for a Brucellosis test, I was sure that it would come in negative. Imagine my shock when the vet came in to tell me that his test came back positive.  He told me that he would run more tests but at this point, he was sure that I would have to destroy all the dogs in my house.  I went home reeling, crying, but determine to do some research.

All I really knew was that it was a sexually transmitted disease and that it was a death warrant for dogs who were infected. What I didn’t know was important, and saved my dog’s life.   I couldn't understand how my dog, who hadn't been bred   in over five years and hadn't been anywhere could have this disease.

The cause of Brucellosis is a gram negative bacteria, Brucella canis. Highly contagious and spreads rapidly in a kennel environment.  While this disease is sexually transmitted through semen and vaginal secretions, the most common method of contracting the disease is by mouth or inhalation of the disease from infected aborted material or the discharge of an infected female after aborting.  Small amounts of the disease can be found in urine, salivary, nasal and non-reproductive vaginal secretions as well as in milk.  Dogs living together with an infected dog will most likely contract the disease within 4 to 6 months.  So the bacteria may enter by any bodily fluids such as the nose, mouth, and/or conjunctiva of the eye. While it can be airborne - it's really not "airborne" like other diseases in that it can't float around or stay airborne for long periods of time.   The bacteria is very unstable outside it’s environment, readily killed by common cleaning agents such as bleach.

Scared yet? What that meant was that my dog didn’t have to have “Sex” to get this disease. A friendly kiss, lick or sniff of an infected dog and mine could get this disease. The last bitch he had been bred to had been negative on her test prior to breeding. If it could come through just physical contact, I had to start thinking of any rescue dogs or any dogs that my dog may have been in contact with - from the neighbor’s dog to strays. Would I even remember? My brain scrambled - what about that vet trip, did my dog sniff one of the dogs in the waiting room? Did a stray come up to my fence and get friendly with mine? Did the neighbors dog have it?

The most common misconception is that a spayed or neutered animal won't have the disease.  There is a hypothesis out that altering an infected animal will reduce the risk of transmission, but there has been no experimental tests to prove it.  Neutering does NOT eliminate the organisms from the body so such a dog is not "cured".   Since spaying or neutering DOESN'T cure a dog, what about friends who had come over with pets?    Had I brought in any rescue dogs?

Brucellosis affected dogs may show mild or NO clinical signs of infection. The signs may go unnoticed, such as poor hair coat, lack of energy, or exercise intolerance. Arthritis may be present. Recurrent eye infections may be a problem . The most common sign is abortion between days 45 to 59 of gestation or “missed breeding“ in bitches. Males can show clinical signs such as infertility, and/or atrophy of testicles. It’s the first recommended test for bitches who do not conceive or males who have demonstrated infertility (or irregular testicle sizes).

The good news is that Brucellosis, while highly contagious, is relatively rare. While we really don’t know how prevalent, but it has been estimated that only about 7% of stray dogs in the USA have this disease. If Brucellosis is seen, it’s more likely to occur in laboratories animals and/or large breeding facilities, but breeders are encouraged to test, even those “first time breeding“ dogs because it‘s highly contagious.  

Breeders need to understand that just because a dog or bitch has never been bred that they still can contract this disease.  Demand to see a brucellosis test.   Even if a stud dog has been bred to bitches with negative brucellosis tests, the bitch owner should request a test on the stud since it's not just contracted through sexual contact.    Breeders who rescue should routinely have dogs tested prior to bringing strays or owner turn-ins into their house.   They should especially do this if they are taking in puppy mill, breeder or dogs from pounds.   Once you bring the disease into your house, you cannot turn back. 

The Rapid Slide Agglutination Test (RSAT) offered "in-house" by veterinary offices is a highly sensitive test which is looking for gram negative bacteria (which Brucellosis, Bordatella and other bacteria are). If the test comes back negative, you can be assured that your pet does not have the disease. While the disease can incubate 8-12 weeks before showing any of the signs associated with it, the RSAT can pick it up in as little as 2 weeks after exposure. This makes the test valuable for that reason - even with the high rate of false positives A positive on this test should always indicate further testing. One in five dogs will test positive on this test and 65% of those will be actually negative for Brucellosis on further testing.

By this point of reading, I had calmed down. The vet had sent a vial of blood off to a lab to be tested and I’d know the results the next day . I was fairly confident that there wasn’t a way for my dog to have this disease, after all, it’s only “other people‘s dogs” who could get it, not mine. Imagine my utter shock when the vet called to tell me the test came back inconclusive and that they had to run another test, imagine further shock when two days now had passed since the initial positive and another phone call came in to tell me that it was positive again. But don’t worry, said this vet (not my regular vet), we are running a 4th test and you’ll know Tuesday what the results are.

The weekend was spent scouring for more information. I armed myself with knowledge as much as I could so that when this vet called me, I’d have questions to ask and at least be able to understand the answers. I was bubbling with questions, but very confident that the diagnosis would come back negative this time.

The best website about Brucellosis was the IVIS website:

When I read "Many laboratories are insufficiently familiar with the interpretation of canine brucellosis diagnostic procedures, which has frequently resulted in the destruction of non-infected dogs solely on the basis of agglutination test results that, in fact, were false-positive reactions." I knew I'd make sure I knew what tests where run and by what lab.   Further reading "the New York State Diagnostic Laboratory at Cornell University is recognized as the principal, and most reliable, testing lab."

So I knew this was an important question to ask my vet and I would make sure I would ask which Lab did the testing.

My world fell apart Monday when he called me a day early to tell me that the test came back in again Positive. I came as close as I have ever to just shutting down and quitting. When that 4th test came up positive, I was ready to curl up, sell my house and walk away from everything.  How could this happen to me?  I'm a clean fanatic!   The fear that even my spayed old girl Abbie was at risk was unbearable.  

Stifling my fear, I asked him if he had used NYSDL - Cornell, he said “No, the one I use is just as good as Cornell”. (alarm #1 ringing). Since I had done my homework, I asked him what tests the lab had run “I’m not sure which ones.” (alarm #2 ringing). I asked him so many questions but his answers sent me into further confusion, concern and terror. Bottom line, his suggestion was testing the rest of my dogs and euthanasia of all positive.   

Now, if Abbie, my IMHA girl had taught me anything, it was to ALWAYS seek a second opinion or at the very least, further confirmation before making such a drastic decision like killing my pets. When I asked him about further testing, his said “Further testing isn’t going to change the outcome, but if you want me to, I’ll send them off to what ever lab you want me to“. He didn’t feel the tests could be wrong - I felt they could be. I told him nicely that I would be seeing my regular vet (Dr. Borden) to have further testing done.

I had many factors in my favor to warrant further testing.   My sister, as an RN told me the risk of contaminating the sample of blood increases every time you run a test using the same vial and running 4 tests on one small vial of blood made that possibility very high.   She was positively shocked that any testing lab would run that many tests on one vial.

Since the lab used by the first vet was not NYSDL, I wanted only the leading lab to run confirmation tests. The vet didn‘t know which tests were run. The two tests that were considered “the“ tests were the Slide Agglut and the AGID2. These tests can take up to 7 days to obtain results. AGID2 is a highly sensitive and specific test for Brucellosis antibodies. There was no way first lab ran this test as not enough time has elapsed for this test to be run. The RSAT is highly sensitive for anything from Kennel Cough to E Coli (gram negative bacteria).

I knew that I had been recently battling bacterial diarrhea as my dogs had been passing back and forth. While the first lab confirmed it was possible that this could have been the source of the positive, the first vet didn’t take my concerns very seriously. I had recently had puppies, had never had a missed litter, never had an aborted litter. The last bitch he had been bred to had been negative prior to breeding and after as well. All these things added up to a “negative” test, not the positive that the results were saying.

But all that study still doesn’t give you much confidence as you wait for the vet appointment the next day. The bottom line was that I was putting all my faith into my beliefs, my practices and knowledge that the first series of tests had to be wrong. There is no cure, there is no vaccine, if it were true, it meant every dog in my house would have to be tested and all those coming up positive would have to be destroyed.

Once again, I have to say my vet, Dr. Borden should be nominated as the vet of the century. I cried the entire way to the vet clinic, I had printed up all the websites, written down my questions and had those papers clutched tightly in my hand when my husband and I walked into his office. Dr. Borden is the greatest, he listened to me, asked tons of questions, listened some more and the entire time was talking to my dog, petting him and checking him over.

At the end of my long winded and panicky speech, he gave my dog a firm pat on the shoulders, nodded at me and said “I highly doubt he has this disease. Based on the history of your dogs and all that’s going on, in addition to having live litters, I am pretty sure his initial positive is a result of the gram negative bacteria we have talked about or contaminated sample.”

He proceeded to draw two samples of blood for Cornell to run the two tests. If by some off the wall chance it came up positive, Dr. Borden assured me he’d be calling Cornell as he would not believe it possible with everything we had discussed. Having a vet go to bat for you, instead of telling you to give up hope is the best feeling in the world.

It was the most miserable week of my life. While your head tells you there is no way you have a positive, waiting for test results can wreck havoc on the heart. You spend a lot of time running everything through your head. You review how you do things.

No longer would I not test one of my own bitches just because she’s not been bred before. If I’m showing, or my dogs are actively leaving my house, there is always a chance of catching this disease from another dog. If I’m not breeding for awhile, I may not miss the early low key signs. I wouldn’t know until the bitch had aborted the litter or have no litter By then, I could have infected the stud as well as my entire household of dogs.

The disease IS exceedingly rare and the chances of a breeder coming in contact with it is slim. BUT after learning how it's transmitted made me realize that if I still wanted to rescue, I'd have to do a little bit more just to be on the safe side. Before bringing home a rescue, I would have the vet do a health check which INCLUDES the RSAT test. Dogs coming from pounds/puppy mills/byb breeding operations and not private homes are at an increased risk even with this being a rare disease. The Rapid Slide test from my vet is only $30.00. That cost is MUCH cheaper than the loss of a life.


Although I have always required outside bitches to be tested, I will no longer allow friends to breed to my dogs just because I know them and think “it couldn’t happen to them”. Everyone, even if it were my very own mother’s dog, has to be tested prior to breeding. And just because the last bitch or dog bred to was negative, I will still run another test before breeding again. This disease is no joke. It’s deadly and can potentially end the dreams of a breeder.

If I decide to try frozen semen, I’m going to require proof the dog was negative at the time of semen freezing. The cost of freezing is expensive, if the dog is not tested before you may have just frozen Brucellosis as well.

If I am using fresh chilled semen, I will make sure the dog is tested as well. It doesn’t take sexual contact, just infected semen. I won’t rely on “He’s never been bred before”.

When Dr. Borden called to give me the test results from Cornell, I think my heart raced and stopped at the same time. When he said “Both tests came back negative”, I started to cry with relief and joy.   To be on the safe side, we did wait an additional 6 weeks and tested again - and the result was a relief of another negative.

There is a bottom line to this long tale:

1. The internet is a wonderful and powerful tool. Arm yourself with knowledge.

2. NEVER be afraid to question a vet or the outcome of a test.

3. Seek second opinions if necessary. Have a good working relationship with your vet. The best vets are always the ones who will listen to you and are willing to go the extra mile if necessary. But always feel you have the right to get 2nd opinions.  

4.  ALWAYS test any new dogs coming into your house.  Spaying or neutering is not a cure for the disease.  Strays, puppy mill rescues or breeding animals should be tested prior to being introduced into your house.

5. Test all dogs prior to doing a breeding - no matter what (which includes when using fresh, chilled or frozen semen).

It could just save your best friend’s life. I know it did mine.

Copyright - Karen Thayne 2004