Outdoors: Blastomycosis- A Rare but Possible Threat to your Dog

July 30, 2021

Outdoors: Blastomycosis- A Rare but Possible Threat to your Dog

By Joan Young, MCP Contributing Writer.

Barney was a happy outdoor-loving Michigan dog. He was only 4-years-old when he died of blastomycosis, leaving behind his grieving humans and a doggy sister. 

Blastomycosis is a rare fungal infection that can affect mammals. Humans and cats are also susceptible, but dogs seem to contract it most often. There are an average of six cases reported in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula each year. Statistics for the Lower Peninsula are unavailable, possibly because it is so rare that it is often misdiagnosed. In fact, I had never heard of it, until I read Barney’s story on Facebook a few months ago.

Dogs, in general, are exposed more often than humans because their noses are closer to the ground, and they love to poke them into damp, musty places. Digging, a favorite doggy pastime, can send millions of spores flying into the air. Larger dogs, those over 55 pounds, seem most susceptible.

The condition is caused by spores of Blastomyces dermatitidis. This fungus grows best in wet environments such as wetlands, damp shorelines, rotting wood, and soil that is rich in decaying matter. It is a natural North American fungus, doing its job to break down organic matter and return it to the soil.

However, when the spores are inhaled, it can cause a number of symptoms, which if treated incorrectly, can lead to death. Mortality in dogs is as high as 40%. The most common symptoms are respiratory distress, and/or lesions on the skin. However, other symptoms include fever, loss of appetite and weight loss, eye inflammation and discharge.

Because it is rare, it is often diagnosed as bronchitis or pneumonia, and treated with antibiotics, which can make the condition worse. Anti-fungal medications are required, and may result in a good outcome.

Barney had been frolicking in the Upper Peninsula, and six weeks to the day after the family returned from their trip to their home near Lansing, he began coughing. A few short weeks later he was dead. The veterinarians in the area where he lived never thought to test for blastomycosis until it was too late, because they so rarely see it. 

The point of this article is not to alarm dog owners. Dogs are going to sniff and dig. It’s part of being a dog. In truth, the spores can be in the air anywhere. Humans occasionally contract this disease, and they rarely stick their noses in decaying wood piles. 

Barney’s owner Lisa Oberlin says, “Dog owners… research the signs and symptoms of Blastomycosis. Especially if you’re traveling in the UP. The symptoms mimic that of bronchitis/pnomenonia/and lung cancers. There is a test specifically for this disease you can have done. I wish I would have known about it sooner.

“Barney was the most laid back loving dog you could ever meet. He was always by my side. He would lay his big blocky head in my lap for ear scratches. Plop on the couch and watch movies with me while getting his belly scratched for hours.”

Losing a “fur baby” is always hard. However, losing one to a disease that might have been cured with the right diagnosis is even harder.

If you have traveled to areas where blastomycosis is more common (Michigan’s UP, and southern states), and your dog develops a cough or pus-filled sores after a few weeks, you might want to suggest to your vet that a test for blastomycosis be done. This is particularly true if you’ve recreated in areas along water, or in damp woodlands. With proper treatment, your beloved pet will have a much greater chance of survival.

Joan Young, who lives in Amber Township, is an avid hiker who has the honor of having been the first woman to hike the entire North Country Trail.

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This story is copyrighted © 2021, all rights reserved by Joan Young, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.

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