Woman warns rare 'swamp cancer' killed her dog

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Jan White's animals are her world. She has horses, a miniature donkey, and two Great Pyrenees.

"Millie is 10, and Buttermilk is 3," White says.

But there's one more dog, who is missing, and missed. 

"Thomas Cromwell," White says.  "He was a year and a half old, and we lost him April 25th of this year."

Like all of White's dogs, Thomas Cromwell was an explorer.

"They stay outside most of the day," White says, walking her property.  "They eat things out of the pasture they shouldn't eat, sticks, pecans.

It's out here, in her pastures and nearby pools of standing water, White thinks Thomas Cromwell picked up a rare, tropical disease known as swamp cancer or pythiosis.

It's not a cancer; it's caused by a waterborne mold.

"I had never heard of it," White says.

White's vet is Auburn Animal Hospital's Dr. Stuart Rackley. 

In 24 years on the job, Rackley can only remember seeing three cases of swamp cancer, two in the past 24 months.

"It's caused by a fungus-like organism," he says.  "It's not truly a fungus."

The disease is primarily found in tropical and sub-tropical regions, typically in wet, marshy freshwater areas along the coast.

Auburn, Georgia is hundreds of miles inland.

"We've had a couple of wet years here," Dr. Rackley says. "This year is really wet, and last year was wet too."

Rackley says pythiosis can be a problem for horses when the parasitic spores get in through cuts, scrapes or tiny holes caused by insect bites.

In dogs, he says, it's typically ingested through the nose or mouth, getting into their digestive tract.

That's what happened to Thomas Cromwell, who Rackley says, fits the typical pattern dogs he’s seen with swamp cancer.

They’re young, healthy, male, larger breed dogs who like to wander and explore, he says.

"A lot of times, it's not good to let your dogs swim or drink out of nasty water sources," Rackley says. 

"But, if they're active, or hunting dogs or they're out on farms, things like that, you don't have control of that."

The earlier swamp cancer can be treated, Dr. Rackley says, the better the odds of survival.

Symptoms in dogs include fever, vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, regurgitation, swollen lymph nodes, abdominal pain, or a mass in the abdomen.

When Thomas Cromwell started throwing up, the Whites weren't worried.

They thought he'd eaten something out exploring.

Then, one April 2018 night, he took a turn for the worse, and they rushed him to Auburn Animal Hospital.

"They did x-rays, and nothing showed up," White says. "They did an ultrasound, and nothing showed up."

But in just a couple of days, she says, the bottom dropped out.

Her once healthy young dog grew critically ill.

"And what they have to do is go in and do exploratory (surgery)," White says.

About an hour and a half into the operation, the vet called.

"They said, 'There is no hope,'" White remembers.  "I said, 'Don't even let him wake up. Just go ahead and put him down.' His stomach walls were 8 inches thick from that pythiosis."

Swamp cancer remains extremely rare, but the disease no longer just a problem for animals in the very southern US.

Cases have been reported as far north as Minnesota.

Some veterinarians believe climate change may be pushing the disease northward.

Along the barrier islands of Virginia, the famous Chincoteague ponies have been hit hard by swamp cancer.

Eight ponies have died from complications of the disease, despite an intense medical effort to save them.

Jan White knows what happened to Thomas Cromwell is rare, but she hopes his story with alert other pet owners, especially those who live near standing water.

Every day, White says, she misses him.

"This morning, I was going through my camera, and I had to call my husband," White says.  "I was just in tears. He was just one of those dogs. He was so special."