Kathy Antoniotti

CANAL FULTON: A mysterious illness that has killed three dogs in the Cincinnati area and sickened more than a dozen others earlier this month might be spreading into the Akron-Canton area.

Dr. Melanie Butera, owner of Elm Ridge Animal Hospital, said she has seen four canine patients in the past two weeks with symptoms similar to those exhibited by the dogs that died in Cincinnati. Three dogs were brought into her Portage Street Northwest office by their owners last week and one the previous week. Three survived after treatment; one did not.

Chris Gatsios, of Canal Fulton, said she took her Labrador retriever, Bella, to Elm Ridge last Friday, after the dog vomited repeatedly for three days even though she refused to eat.

“My first thought was she ate something she wasn’t supposed to. Then she got real lethargic and was just not herself, ” Gatsios said.

Bella stayed at the hospital overnight and seemed worse the next morning.

“On Saturday, she was so bad, I expected her to die,” Gatsios said.

Butera said Bella exhibited symptoms similar to another dog brought in the same day. That animal then was taken by its owner to an emergency clinic, where it died overnight.

Gatsios said Butera called all over the country, trying to figure out what she was dealing with.

“It’s a very aggressive illness, and it has a very acute onset,” Butera said.

Coincidentally, two of the four animals Butera treated recently had been in Cincinnati, but Bella wasn’t one of them.

“She stays in a fenced-in backyard,” Gatsios said.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture is collecting data to pinpoint the cause of the illness and to decide what steps need to be taken to prevent other animals from contracting it. Samples from the Stark County dog that died are being analyzed in California. It might take several weeks before a report is available.

“We really have to wait until we hear what the tests are going to show to see if they are the same as each other,” Butera said.

Whatever it is, the illness has left veterinarians scratching their heads.

A Louisville veterinarian contacted Butera this week to say he also has a patient exhibiting similar symptoms that include bloody diarrhea, vomiting, trouble breathing, low blood pressure and a rapid heartbeat.

“They are profoundly [physically] depressed, weak and lethargic. They couldn’t lift their heads to look at you, and they couldn’t care less where they were,” Butera said.

Once symptoms appear, an animal can die within 48 hours, she said.

The state agriculture department connected Butera’s cases with those of the dogs from southwest Ohio, she said.

Blood tests taken from the afflicted animals have not pinpointed any of the usual diseases that would cause the symptoms the animals are showing, said Erica Hawkins, communications director for the agriculture department. She said tests have ruled out diseases that pathogenic bacteria cause, such as salmonella, E. coli, distemper, parvovirus or the other usual suspects.

“They still are not sure, wondering if it is some kind of bacterial or toxin related,” she said.

Akron-Canton and Cincinnati are the only two areas in Ohio where the illness has been reported, Hawkins said.

The owner of two dogs boarded at the Cincinnati kennel where the outbreak occurred earlier this month said he left his dogs at the facility while he vacationed for a week. One got sick; the other showed no symptoms.

Russell Gibson said his puggle, Max, became lethargic and showed symptoms associated with hemorrhagic gastroenteritis — bloody diarrhea and vomiting — when his owner returned to pick up the dogs.

Max soon developed neurological symptoms of tremors and shaking, which he still exhibits after three weeks of treatment, Gibson said Wednesday.

Gibson said veterinarians at MedVet, the animal hospital where all the Cincinnati dogs were treated, told him that on the day he took Max for treatment five more animals were coming in, four already were hospitalized, two had been released and three had died. Gibson said he has been in contact with several of the dogs’ owners since the pets became sick.

“We all had the same common denominator: a day-care facility in Norwood [a Cincinnati suburb]. At least six of them were boarded there,” Gibson said.

He believes the dogs were exposed to some sort of toxin at the kennel.

Without a clear idea what is causing the illnesses, the state is advising dog owners to pay attention to their animals.

“The thing we are really encouraging, if folks are concerned at all, is to keep an eye on your dog. If you see any kind of a sign of diarrhea or vomiting, get it to your vet immediately so they can start supportive therapies,” Hawkins said.

Gatsios took Bella home Sunday night after three days at Elm Ridge Animal Hospital. When released, Bella could stand, wag her tail and bark at her family, but she is not out of the woods yet, said Gatsios, who has been cooking chicken for Bella’s meals since the dog got home.

“Now it’s just wait and see, but she is definitely not back to herself yet,” Gatsios said.

Butera, who is still looking for answers, said she spoke with Gibson on Wednesday and is no longer sure her patients share the same illness with the Cincinnati dogs.

“What he described in Cincinnati to me is just downright scary because of how fast it went from dog to dog or from environment to dog. If what I’m seeing is a separate situation from what those dogs died from, then I would breathe a big sigh of relief. If those dogs have the same thing, and it is viral, boy that’s scary,” she said.

Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or kantoniotti@thebeaconjournal.com.