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Cryptococcosis – Laika’s Story

Laika

Laika
Myriosa Water Off A Ducks Back CD, WC, Am/Can TDX; therapy dog
16 September 2000 – 15 August 2005

Last month, with my “puppy” lying at my feet, I would never have believed I would be writing this note so soon. Laika was such a big part of my life, and I had hoped we would have many more years together before it was time for her move on to the greener hunting grounds. As my daughter noted, she was like the third child in the family, the one who unlike the others would never leave home and would always stay with me. Although over the years, ever since growing up in Finland, I’ve had many dogs, Laika was special: she was my first competition dog, my first Golden, and my constant companion, accompanying me on working trips on forest trails, being by my side when I was working on the computer, following me around the house and the yard, and sleeping under my bed at night. It’s those times I remember, both the quiet and the wild, as well as all the fun we had learning clicker training, obedience, tracking, retrieving, and agility together. In the end our moments together were reduced to her licking a bit of yogurt from my finger and to a flicker of recognition from her tired eyes.

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Ever since a pup, tracking was her favorite activity. She had a wonderfully acute sense of smell (that sometimes got her into troubles!) and learned quickly the idea of finding “lost objects” and following human tracks. She never failed me at a tracking test and got her CKC and AKC Tracking Dog and Tracking Dog Excellent titles all on the first tries. In June 2003, we traveled to Prince George where she delighted me by passing her Canadian TDX with flying colours. In September 2004, she passed her American TDX at Fort Lewis, Washington; I wrote about this wonderful experience in a previous issue of Golden Tails. We were practicing for the new urban tracking titles, and on a stormy morning at a tracking workshop last February she amazed me by tackling a 12-hour old track.

She was a gentle soul who always enthusiastically greeted people, never harassed rabbits, cats (well, the small black cat that runs deserves to be chased), or chickens, and respected the no-dog zones in the house and yard that were marked with flags. She was a therapy dog with the Pacific Animal Therapy Society and brought moments of joy and recognition to the residents of the Broadmead Logde, where she visited every Sunday for about a year. Earlier this summer we moved to a small hobby farm near Victoria. Laika enthusiastically approved of the new quarters and for a brief time enjoyed fetching the ball and running through the newly cut hay.

She died of cryptococcosis, a rare but emerging fungal disease of mammals that is becoming more and more prevalent on Vancouver Island and has also been detected on the Lower Mainland just recently. There have been several cases in cats and dogs and a few in humans since the disease was first found here. Most of what we know about the disease comes from studies in Australia. Cats are particularly susceptible and may be considered sentinels of the disease, but symptoms are often more severe in dogs. Transmission is from spores in the air and not from mammal to mammal, as far as it’s known. Although in humans the disease often attacks immune-compromised individuals, there is no such relationship in dogs and apparently healthy individuals are often affected. As the vet said, Laika just happened to sniff the wrong bush at the wrong time. Symptoms vary but often involve the respiratory system. The fungus has usually been present for 8 – 10 months in the body before any symptoms are noted.

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Laika first showed signs of being sick in June, when I noticed she had very low energy and her breathing sounded hoarse (there was an earlier incident of hair loss from a toe in February that might have been related). I was very alarmed, but the vet found nothing wrong with her. Since she seemed better next week, I ran her in a WC test (she passed, after an incident of a loose puppy snatching the duck from her mouth!). In the beginning of August, the symptoms returned, and she was down, listless and not eating, by the end of the week. A bit of detective work led to a positive diagnosis with Cryptococcus. By that time she had systemic mycosis that had invaded her respiratory and central nervous systems. She struggled on for a week on aggressive drug therapy, but the disease was too far progressed and had damaged the brain. The therapy was very harsh and involved subcutaneous and oral administration of two different fungicides. A massive die-off of fungi in the brain as result of the treatment caused inflammation and neurological symptoms. Had she been an older dog, I would have hesitated before putting her through the treatment. That said, if detected early enough, before CNS involvement, the prognosis is excellent and a return to a normal life is possible. However, the therapy is long-term and very expensive, and prospects of a total cure are uncertain. Unlike in Australia, vets in Victoria have had little luck in totally eradicating the fungus from the body of affected animals. Diagnosis is through a blood test or nasal smear.

Would I have done anything differently? Had I known what was to come, I would certainly have followed up on her earlier respiratory episode in June and tried to get the bottom of it. I don’t think there is any reason to panic or to avoid traveling with your dog. One can come into contact with the fungal spores anywhere; apparently there’s an indoor cat in Oak Bay in Victoria that has the disease. Fortunately, the disease is still rare. All we can do is to follow up any suspected symptoms (sometimes more than one test might be required, as blood tests are not fool-proof), point out the possibility to our vets who might rarely have encountered the disease, and appreciate every day and every moment when our friends are still with us. If anyone ever is unfortunate enough to contact the disease, I’m certainly willing to share the details of my experience.

Laika had many friends all across Canada, and I thank all the various people who have expressed their sympathy. Special thanks to my training partners Maralyn and Carmela for all their help and support in the difficult last weeks, and to Maralyn for letting me have this beautiful, gentle girl and being there for us every step of the way, from the beginning to the end. Laika would have been 5 years old this September.

Submitted by
Kristiina Ovaska

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