For the past few weeks, scores of dogs in South Florida have been suffering a scary new condition. It’s a sickness that involves hindlimb weakness that leads — within hours to days — to paralysis.
It seems to work much like botulism poisoning would, so that many of the dogs eventually succumb to the respiratory effects of the disease once they can no longer power the muscles they need to breathe with. Essentially, those most affected will eventually asphyxiate unless they are either intubated and ventilated (on a "respirator" apparatus) or, sadly, euthanized when the many thousands of dollars required for intensive care just isn't doable for these unlucky owners.
To make matters worse, the ravages of the disease and the expense of its treatment are heavily compounded by the frustration that attends these cases. Why? Because we have no idea what’s causing them. Because we have to look these owners in the eye and tell them we have no clue why their pets are so sick.
But some veterinarians think they may have identified a possible source of the disease: dead iguanas.
As some of you may already know, iguanas expired in the thousands after an in-the-twenties cold snap a month or so back (check out this Dolittler post in which I describe the makeshift hospital I set up for the dying iggies in my vicinity). So it stands to reason their poisonous entrails might result in sickness, right? This scenario makes even more sense if you consider that it's theoretically possible (if improbable) that the botulism toxin comes from bacteria that might possibly be found in long-dead iguana remains.
Problem is, the news media has a way of getting things not-so-right. And, to my way of seeing things, anyway, some veterinarians are too willing to jump the gun on reporting events to the public before the ducks have been lined up and counted. After all, the investigation is too fresh, and not all owners have been appropriately interviewed — at least two of the affected animals had no known exposure to iguanas. Even the ones that did didn't necessarily ingest the creatures.
I mean, one is a fru-fru indoor poodle-y thingie. Though, admittedly, she could have scarfed down something small on her morning walk, this isn’t the kind of dog that tears into a dead iguana like some dogs do. In fact, all affected dogs seem to share a distinctly upscale, suburban provenance. As if that's where iguanas prefer to go to die to release their toxins.
After all, there’s this to consider: My mother’s dogs dragged dead iguanas around for a week after the cold snap killed them (we couldn’t get them away and the yard is soooo big and wooded there was no easy solution except to assume they’d continue to devour dead iguanas for a while). Why then, are not the most obvious outdoor property dogs (like my mom’s) coming down with this dreaded "dead iguana disease"?
Then there's the issue of the disease itself. It doesn't look exactly like botulism. Sort of … but not quite. These dogs are off-kilter, sick and dazed in ways most straightforward botulism cases aren't. What's up with that?
It just doesn’t make sense to me, this iguana theory. While I’m willing to believe that dead lizards’ bacteria can run to C. botulinum (and produce botulism toxin) under certain conditions, why then is this the first year we’ve noticed such a rash of illness? I mean, it's not as if iguanas don't die off all the time. And why iguanas, anyway? There's nothing we know about them, in particular, that might lead us to believe they'd be especially adept at producing botulism toxin (or a likeness) upon death.
So what's the answer? We don't yet know. Which is why the take home point here is as follows: Don't be complacent just because your pets can't access dead iguanas. Keep your pets on a short leash and beware ANY potential toxins. I'd eschew the lawn spray and cook for my pets, too, just in case. But hey — I've been known to go overboard on a regular basis … not just when there's a probable poison a-prowling. In the meantime, I'll keep you posted.
Dr. Patty Khuly