Efram Goldberg, a Ph.D. student studying chemistry at Florida Tech, has taken his white German Shepherd to the pond by Harris Commons every day since January.
Darwin was only 16 months old when he started showing signs: his fur was stained, reddish.
When Goldberg examined further, looking under his tail, he found an open, bleeding ulcer. Darwin was rushed to the vet the next day, diagnosed on July 25 with what appeared to be a bacterial infection and given a shot of antibiotics. But the ulcer continued to grow and become more gruesome.
He started searching online for anything he could find that matched Darwin’s symptoms, and he found a website that contained a comprehensive list of diseases.
“So I went through each one, one by one, and found one called Pythiosis, and everything matched. They said it’s rare, it’s gotten from swimming in ponds or lakes,” Goldberg said. “It causes ulcers that don’t heal or don’t respond, and it’s deadly.”
Goldberg said he felt a sense of urgency. The sooner Darwin was diagnosed, the higher his chances of survival were.
He made several calls and a couple visits to the surrounding veterinary clinics in the Melbourne and Palm Bay area, where all they said they could do was give Darwin antibiotics for his ulcer. Some of the clinics didn’t have the proper testing tools to be able to tell if it was Pythiosis.
He then made a call to the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville, which is known to test and treat this rare disease in horses and a few dogs.
Darwin’s preliminary results suggested positive for Pythiosis on Aug. 5, and he we went in for surgery to have his tail fully amputated on Aug. 7.
This disease is found in horses, and is starting to more commonly show up in dogs, specifically white German Shepherd and Labrador Retriever breeds.
Erica Goss, Ph.D., studies plant pathogens at the University of Florida, and is familiar with Pythiosis.
“We tried to see if we could find the pathogen agent in the environment, and we were surprised to find that it’s very common,” Goss said.
Pythium insidiosum, the fungal organism infecting these animals and plants, was found in 11 out of the 19 water bodies sampled.
“We don’t know if the infections are increasing in prevalence, or if veterinarians are just learning to recognize it and diagnosing it more often,” Goss said. “If I was a dog owner, I would definitely not let my dogs swim in local lakes and ponds pretty much anywhere where you see vegetation growing in the water.”
She said it’s okay to let your dogs swim at dog parks, in man-made lakes or ponds where it’s clear dogs are allowed. Goldberg also mentioned there should probably be signs posted at ponds warning dog owners of the dangers of the water.
“You read about rare diseases and stuff and think they’re far away… but no, they’re right here in our backyard,” Goldberg said.
Usually in a fungal infection like this, the vet has to remove the infected tissue, and sometimes lesions come back. Goldberg and the vets are waiting for the next two months to see if any lesions come back. And as a result, Darwin will have to be on medications for seven to eight months, up to two years.
So far, Goldberg’s father has paid for the medical costs, and Goldberg has started a GoFundMe to help raise funds for Darwin’s medical bills.
“I’m hoping that’ll help pay for his medical bills and then anything extra that’s raised will go to the vet at UF for his research for Pythiosis,” Goldberg said. “I’ve been taken aback by how kind strangers are, like a stranger donated $300. and I think that’s really neat that people are really supportive like that.”
The fund can be found at www.GoFundMe.com/DarwinsFund.
“If it’s not treated, it’s fatal 100% of the time. The good news is, the earlier that they catch it, the better chances of success,” Goldberg said. “So hopefully he’ll make a full recovery. Just without a tail.”