Swamp cancer threatens again

The above-average rainfall in October has caused pythium, also known as swamp cancer, to re-emerge as a threat to Cayman’s dog population.

‘With all the rain and flooding, it has stirred up the organism again,’ explained veterinarian Brenda Bush.

‘I have seen three more cases within a week’s time since Hurricane Wilma and that has got us spooked a little bit,’ she added.

Swamp cancer can manifest itself either externally, in the form of lesions, or internally. The latter is marked by progressive weight less, vomiting and diarrhoea, Dr. Bush explained.

Unfortunately, when the dog starts to suffer from those symptoms, the disease has already advanced to a level where the affected tissue can’t be removed, she added.

The disease made its first known appearance on Grand Cayman after Hurricane Ivan caused widespread flooding. Three dogs died earlier this year from pythium.

Dr. Bush’s diagnosis of the disease in three more dogs recently has been confirmed.

‘We just got the pathology reports back to confirm it was swamp cancer, though visually we already knew,’ she said.

Veterinarian Elisabeth Broussard, who works with Dr. Bush, explained the disease is not limited to dogs.

‘It can affect horses in very similar ways. We have not heard of any cases here, but we don’t deal with large animals.

‘Cats are definitely susceptible but we have not seen any cases. I do believe that any mammal can contract the disease,’ she said.

According to information recently received from a specialist in the US, Dr. Broussard warned that eating grass can be dangerous.

‘Dogs can also get it from ingesting grass. If there is grass that has been flooded, it can contain the pythium organism and thus be infectious. And that’s really scary,’ she said.

In the case of the three ill dogs Dr. Bush tried to save the animals, but the disease had progressed too far.

‘I took two of them to surgery but the lesions were too extensive so we had to euthanize them. In the third case, we did the surgery but we knew the prognosis was very poor.

‘The lesions came back and the dog had to be euthanized. It was very emotional for everybody. We were praying for a miracle. Sometimes you just have to try all efforts,’ Dr. Bush said.

The disease is compared to cancer because it is hard to remove all the affected tissue. If, after surgery, some infected cells remain, the disease will return.

Pythium is slow-growing, which is one reason it is so lethal, she explained.

Research has shown that only about five per cent of dogs respond to treatment, which is harsh and expensive.

Dog owners should exercise caution when taking their pets outside, she added.

‘If you walk your dogs in any swampy areas, keep them on a lead. If you live in a swampy area, keep the dogs confined,’ Dr. Bush said.

Dr. Bush would like to be able to speed up the process of confirming the diagnosis.

‘We are researching sending blood samples for testing instead of doing a biopsy. It is less invasive and probably faster,’ Dr. Bush said.

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