7 min read

My Dog Caught A Deadly Disease While Swimming. It's Completely Preventable.

Darwin, my 20-month-old German shepherd, thinks his one job in life is to fetch tennis balls. Every day over the summer I used to take Darwin out to play near our home in Florida, and he would cool off by swimming in a small pond. Like most dog owners, I was content to know Darwin was happy and having fun, but he caught a rare deadly infection and is now fighting to stay alive. I hope that sharing his story can help other dog owners avoid the nightmare we're going through.

In July, I noticed a large lesion on the underside of Darwin's tail and immediately took him to the vet. Even though he started taking antibiotics, the lesion kept growing. It was heartbreaking watching it get worse, not knowing what it was. I diligently searched for an answer, and came across a disease called pythiosis.

Even though it's a rare disease, I also read it infects large breed young dogs with exposure to freshwater, and German shepherds are more susceptible. The next day I took Darwin to the University of Florida Veterinary School, and two days later I was told he had tested positive.

The organism that causes pythiosis isn't a bacteria, fungus or virus - it's from a family called oomycetes. It's a common cause of some of the most feared plant diseases, but this one species is known to infect horses, dogs and, very rarely, people. Dogs become infected by swimming in or drinking standing freshwater ponds or lakes, with most U.S. infections occurring in the Southeast.

The disease is insidious because it is not well known. It is thought to be underdiagnosed and doesn't appear in the normal diagnostic tests. Pythiosis presents as skin lesions, but more commonly it infects the dog's GI tract, where it mimics a tumor. It is usually found once symptoms present - and by then, it's usually too late. It doesn't respond to antibacterials or anti-fungals. The only effective treatment is an immunotherapy serum that is at best 60 percent successful.

In August, Darwin had his whole tail amputated and a small lesion removed from his hip. He was taking an immunotherapy serum and various drugs, and receiving hyperbaric oxygen therapy. His incisions healed and we thought we were lucky - it was diagnosed early enough and things were going well.

In October, Darwin started having respiratory symptoms, which led to the discovery of a lesion on his trachea. This had never been reported before, and when I found out, it felt like my whole world came crashing down. There were only several cases of a lesion being found in the lungs, and those dogs died within several months.

Darwin is my first dog, but he is also much more than that. He's my best friend and I love him. My ex-girlfriend helped raise Darwin and has been a wonderful mom to him. I have only been able to get this far with her help and the support of my family, friends and the kindness of strangers. The past four months have been devastating, but I have been trying my best to keep Darwin happy and cherish every minute with him. We are blessed to have an amazing vet at UF who is very dedicated to helping Darwin.

There is a Facebook support group with nearly 500 members who have also gone through this, and there are three other German shepherds known to be infected in Florida. Whether or not the disease is underdiagnosed or spreading, more cases are being reported.

If I had known the risks, I would have kept Darwin away from ponds and lakes and only let him swim in pools or the ocean. People shouldn't panic - pythiosis is uncommon but it's also easily prevented, and the earlier it is diagnosed, the higher the chances of survival. I hope raising awareness can help save the lives of other dogs. Darwin is a fighter. We are not giving up and we will be trying some new experimental treatments that will hopefully save his life.

If you would like to follow updates on Darwin's progress or help contribute to his medical bills, please check out his GoFundMe campaign.