Minnesota sees surge in fungus deadly to dogs... and us

Blastomycosis lives in warm, wet soil, and the spores have a habit of wreaking havoc on canine -- and human -- lungs.

Blastomycosis lives in warm, wet soil, and the spores have a habit of wreaking havoc on canine -- and human -- lungs. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Buck the yellow lab had an enviable life. He lived on Scott Donahue’s rural Park Rapids property—five acres of woods, water, and dirt. At a year old, he spent most of his time chasing squirrels or galloping his thick, 90-pound body down to the lakefront.

But last summer, things took a sad turn. Buck developed a hacky-sounding cough and started vomiting foamy white fluid. Then he started convulsing.

He was diagnosed with blastomycosis, a fungus that lives in moist soil and rotting leaves. When animals like Buck inhale the spores, they can wind up settling in the nooks and crannies of the lungs and reproducing there for days or weeks. Then they spread to the skin, the bones, or the nervous system.

By the time vets caught it, it was too late. Buck had to be put down within two months.

Cases like Buck’s are generally described as rare, but 2019 seems to be a banner year for them. State health officials have reported 170 blastomycosis cases so far this year—up 50 percent from last year, and way over the previous all-time record: 155 cases in 2017.

That’s 170 and counting, Malia Ireland reminded the Duluth News Tribune. After all, 2019 isn’t over yet.

Ireland speculated the big spike could be due to the huge increase in rain we’ve had this year. This this fungus loves the warm and the wet. Floodwaters also have a tendency to rake infected soil to the surface.

It’s unsettling news for pet owners, particularly in the Minnesota’s northernmost counties, which have a greater concentration of cases. There’s no way to test for the presence of blasto in the soil, and no practical way to keep dogs from being exposed—besides shutting them up inside. The only way to stop it is to catch it early and treat it with antifungal medication.

But there’s one other fact that makes it particularly worrisome. We can get it too.

In March, almost a year after he lost his dog, Donahue developed a persistent, forceful cough. By the third day, he was coughing so hard he started to throw up. Not long afterward, he reluctantly saw a doctor, who took an X-ray and discovered fluid in both his lungs.

“They assumed it was pneumonia,” he said. But after a few days of antibiotics, he was bedridden and no less miserable. It was only after he was hospitalized that a specialist discovered it was the same fungus Buck had caught the year before. Donahue is one of 45 reported cases in humans this year—a 28 percent increase from this time last year.

He counts himself as lucky. In the end, it took a tracheotomy, a kidney biopsy, and a three-month hospitalization to save his life. He only started to feel more like himself again in June, and he was finally released from the hospital in July. He’ll continue to take antifungal drugs for a year.

But he’s still worried. He can’t help but think about what would happen if his sons got the fungus, or their new yellow lab, Duke.

This time, at the very least, they’ll be prepared.