This blog is a little different than what I would typically write about, but I wanted to share Stella’s story in hopes that it sheds light to even one person that may encounter Blastomycosis.
About a month ago we decided to seize the good Fall weather, and hike to the top of Ampersand armed with our cameras and Bernese Mountain Dog - Stella. The mud was challenging for all of us which made getting to the top that much more rewarding. We took in the beautiful Adirondack Mountains while eating our snacks, and headed back down with lots of memories and some of my favorite photos.
A week later Stella’s occasional itching had turned into a full time job, and little rashes covered her body. Her right hip dysplasia had also flared up, and she was intermittently walking on the leg. We took Stella to our local vet where we discovered she was running a fever of a 103. She was given Convenia (an antibiotic), and prescribed pain medication. She stopped itching within a few days, and her skin went back to normal.
Six days later we called the vet after noticing Stella had developed a cough, and still felt hot. We suspected it was a cold from having a low immune system from the skin issues. She still had a high fever, and was prescribed Baytril (an antibiotic) for a possible viral infection. There was no x-ray completed during the visit.
Three days later Stella’s cough was gone but she was breathing heavy and we decided the antibiotic wasn’t working. We brought her into the vet on a Sunday, and her temperature was 105.1. The vet did an x-ray, and concluded that she was sick with some sort of infection or she had lung cancer. She prescribed Ketoconazole (an antifungal drug), and asked us to follow up in 2 weeks.
Normal Chest x-ray in Dogs
Stella stopped eating after her vet visit, and continued to decline throughout that following week. It wasn’t until Friday morning (5 days later) we decided to take her to Cornell University after sharing her symptoms in a Facebook group for Bernese owners. Over the course of the drive we started looking up fungal infections, and matched her x-rays to an article about Blastomycosis. We convinced ourselves on the drive down that she was suffering from the fungal infection, and felt confident she could beat it because there was a treatment available. Once we arrived at Cornell she was put in an oxygen chamber, and we were quickly told to prepare ourselves that she may not make it.
We were asked to say goodbye before we left the animal hospital. I scooped Stella’s head in my hands, and whispered in her ear “You are going to fight this for me.” There are few cases of survival with Blastomycosis once it takes over the respiratory system, but we wanted to choose hope over the statistics.
I begged my parent’s for a dog growing up so when I finally got Stella I felt more complete as a person. It’s hard to explain the bond that someone can have with their animal, but for me “soul mate” sums it up. I believe Stella was put on this planet for me, and there isn’t a day that goes by that she doesn’t make me smile or laugh. She lays under my desk as I work, barks at me when I start dancing, and sits on my feet while looking up into my eyes as if to say “we were always supposed to be together.” After saying goodbye that day I thought my heart may stop beating, and that a part of my soul was gone. I felt heartbroken.
The vet called that afternoon and said the x-rays appeared not to be lung cancer and that they were moving forward with treatment for Blastomycosis. One treatment in particular - Itraconazole. They moved her into the ICU, and put her on high flow oxygen via nasal cannula. We felt unbelievably grateful, and wholeheartedly thought we were out of the woods.
The following morning we received a call from Cornell, and were told that we needed to decide if Stella should be put on a ventilator. Her oxygen was down, and they feared she would go into respiratory distress. They wanted to place her on a ventilator so she could rest while the medication had time to work. They also told us that no dog facing Blastomycosis had made it off a ventilator, and that we should make a decision knowing we may never see her awake again. We decided to drive down, and see her before we made any decisions.
When we did see her we realized she was weak, and exhausted. She had been fighting for so long without us even knowing, and I struggled to decide if it was time to let her go. We asked to stay the course of treatment, but that if her oxygen did decline to put her on the ventilator. The vet suspected that she would be on the ventilator within the next hour.
We waited by the phone to hear, and with every hour that passed my stomach made tighter knots. I couldn’t imagine that our visit was the last time I may see her alive, and I kept replaying it in my mind. I started to hate myself for not recognizing that she needed help sooner. I had failed her.
We received a phone call that evening that started with, “I don’t really know what to say” and ended with “She’s shocked us all and she’s really improving.” Stella’s fever had broke, her heart rate was normal, and while she was still on high flow oxygen her breathing was more comfortable. She was also eating again.
Over the course of the next 4 days Stella continued to improve. They slowly lowered her oxygen, and she started resting again. Every visit brought more hope that this beautiful animal may survive. She was fighting every step of the way.
On day 6 she was ready to leave the ICU, and make the 3 ½ hour drive home. No words can describe the feeling of picking her up, and knowing that she was surviving. Stella acted like nothing had happened as we loaded her into the car, but when I really look into her eyes I believe she knows the weight of what she went through. I think just as much as I wasn’t ready to say goodbye she wasn’t either, and for that I will never stop being grateful to her.
Stella has been home for a few days, and will continue with the Itraconazole for several months. She improves every single day with lots of rest, hugs, and a few occasional cheese sticks. This process was the worst thing I’ve ever encountered, and though she’s home - my heart still breaks a little for everything she went through. My hope is that this experience happened so that others can learn from it, and possibly seek treatment earlier. I hope that this story provides comfort to one person going through something similar. My hope is that it serves as a reminder that our animals lives are precious, and that we need to be strong advocates for their care.
Thank you for reading this.
Symptoms of Blastomycosis
- Loss of Appetite
- Difficulty Breathing (coughing, wheezing)
- Weight Loss
- Sudden Lameness
- Skin Lesions
- Eye Inflammation
- Eye Discharge
Blastomycosis is an infection caused by breathing in fungus often found in decaying wood and soil. It can be rapidly fatal if not treated early.
- Amphotericin B (while in ICU)
- High Flow Oxygen (while in ICU)