Jul 29, 2014

Family Warns Others After Rare Disease Claims Dog's Life

Keiko died last month after contracting a rare fungal illness.

Family Warns Others After Rare Disease Claims Dog's Life
Story by: Shannon Antinori

When the Schrock family first noticed their dog Keiko's symptoms, they didn't think much of them.

The 6-year-old American Eskimo/Chow mix had begun scratching his ears. A few days later, he started rubbing them on the ground, as if trying to get relief from an itch. 

But within two weeks, a rare disease had claimed Keiko's life — and owner Janice Schrock wants warn other pet owners.

The pooch, popular with neighborhood kids and one of several dogs owned by the family, died from blastomycosis, a rare fungal illness that was once called "Chicago disease" because the fungus that causes it was so common in the region.

The fungus lives in moist soil and decomposing organic matter like wood and dirt. Dogs can contract the airborne illness by simply breathing it in. The fungus thrives in riverbanks, lakes and swamps along with wooded areas,  according to PetMD.com.

Once it's inhaled, the fungus grows in the skin and lungs, along with the eyes, where it can cause blindness. According to PetMD, symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Weight loss
  • Eye discharge
  • Eye inflammation, specifically the iris
  • Difficulty breathing (coughing, wheezing and other unusual breathing sounds)
  • Skin lesions, which are frequently filled with pus

While it was known to strike cats, dogs and livestock in the Chicago area during the late 19th Century, these days the illness is much less common — and is often misdiagnosed as lung cancer or lung infection, which is what happened in Keiko's case.

When the dog became sluggish and began wheezing, Schrock said she took him to the vet. Originally, they thought Keiko had a respiratory infection and ear mites. The family was given a prescription for the antibiotic Amoxicillin. No one knew then that the drug would only make Keiko's illness worse. 

At first, he appeared to be improving — but Schrock said that may have been wishful thinking on the family's part.

"Looking back, we were hoping he was doing better," she said. But several days after he began taking the antibiotic, Keiko took a turn for the worse. It got so bad that the family had to carry him, and the dog also eventually lost his eyesight.

Schrock said she took Keiko to the VCA Aurora Animal Hospital, where a veterinarian almost immediately identified his illness.

"By then he couldn't even walk straight," Schrock said. "He was in really bad shape, and he was totally blind." X-rays confirmed the vet's suspicions that Keiko had contracted blastomycocis, called "blasto" for short.

Treatment for the disease is costly — more than $800 per month, Shrock said — and can take up to a year. In Keiko's case, the fungus had spread so much that the veterinarian said one option was to treat him with IV medication for three days at a cost of $3,000 — and even then, he might not survive.

Schrock said her family choose to take Keiko home with a prescription for a less costly medication — $90 for three days' worth. But Keiko wouldn't even make it that long.

"The next morning, he just died in my lap," said Schrock. "I felt so guilty because we had done the antibiotics and it just feeds the fungus."

Spreading the word

Last week, Keiko's story was featured in a segment on CBS Chicago. Schrock contacted the network after a Google search on the illness led her to a story that ran last fall. 

"I had never heard of this thing before," she said. Schrock sent a message to CBS asking them to re-run the story, hoping it could help other pet owners. 

Schrock said the illness inexplicably struck Keiko. 

Though some have linked Chicago-area cases of the disease to Lake Michigan, Schrock said her dog had not been anywhere near water in the weeks before he became sick. She suspects the recent wet weather and flooding may have become a breeding ground for the fungus.

"He hadn't left our yard," Schrock said, noting that the family has a large yard where the dogs would often play. "We don't have any ponds ... our fear is, 'Where did our dog get it?'"

She said the family is also concerned about their other dogs.

"We're being overcautious," and limiting the dogs' time outside, Schrock said. "How do you protect them when they're just being dogs?"

As the family mourns Keiko, Schrock said she wants to spread the word so other pet owners know the warning signs.

"He was such a good dog," she said. "It was just really heart wrenching."

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