Dixie was a dog that didn’t have to die.
A lethal parasite has been discovered in area canines by a local veterinarian, and its presence is troubling for animal doctors and pet owners.
Dr. Michelle Cox, veterinarian and founder of Island Pet Veterinarian Hospital located in Cape Carteret, first examined Dixie in November 2017, when the young canine had just celebrated its second birthday.
“Dixie’s owner came to see me with her 2-year-old dog,” Cox recalls. “She was extremely distraught. Her dog had started to have grand-mal seizures seven months prior and they were escalating in duration and frequency."
Though Dixie, a tan, short-haired, lab mix, had been to several other vets in hopes of finding the cause of the seizures and path to recovery, nothing seemed to work.
'A loving dog'
"Dixie was a rescue dog we brought into our family from the local animal shelter," said Kori Smith, Dixie's owner. "She was a loving dog."
During the first few months of Dixie's seizures, Smith took her to several vets and was told Dixie either had epilepsy or a brain tumor.
Smith felt defeated, scared and unsure of where to turn next coupled with having to deal with this ordeal with a husband deployed and her left caring for their two young boys. That's when Smith and Dixie met Cox, who had opened an office not far from Smith's Star Hill home.
In 24 years of practicing veterinary medicine, Cox said seizures in dogs were pretty straight forward and were usually attributed to epilepsy, toxins, hypoglycemia, and brain tumors. Recently, though, Cox has had to tack a different course when confronted with seizure cases.
“When I saw Dixie for the first time she seemed like a normal dog. I reviewed the blood work the other veterinarian had performed and there were no abnormal findings,” Cox said. “At Dixie’s first visit I changed her seizure medication along with adding a medication to administer during a seizure to help shorten the length of the seizure and post-ictal period - the hours following a seizure. After several days on this medication Kori told me that Dixie’s condition had deteriorated. Dixie had become disoriented and aggressive, acting completely different than she ever had before. Dixie had always been a loving lap dog who was now constantly pacing, whimpering, and refusing to acknowledge her family like she once did."
It was after trying a third type of anticonvulsant medication - and seeing no improvement - that Cox realized Dixie was dealing with something completely different. Cox said she knew she was tracking a “silent killer” rarely seen or diagnosed in eastern North Carolina.
The 'silent killer'
According to Cox, neospora caninum is a deadly parasite that lives in infected cattle, deer, and other deer relatives such as elk and moose. Dogs, coyotes, gray wolves, and dingoes are definitive hosts. These animals are capable of shedding oocysts in feces after eating tissue of infected hosts. Neospora oocysts have an impervious shell that enables them to survive in soil and water for prolonged periods after the feces have decomposed. Intermediate host, such as cattle, become infected by ingesting oocysts. Once the dog eats the infected raw meat, the oocytes burst and the life cycle of the parasite starts all over again.
Cox consulted with an internist who agreed and advised her to start Dixie on Prednisone and two antibiotics - and test Dixie for Neospora.
Dixie immediately improved.
“She went from seizing multiple times a week to not having any seizures at all. Her aggression had subsided and Kori said the pacing and whining had stopped,” Cox said.
Cox was pleased to learn that the medications seemed to be working but was “very surprised” when Dixie’s Neospora reading came back more than 200, a very strong positive. To put Dixie’s reading into perspective, a healthy dog with no presence of the Neospora parasite would a negative reading. Cox wondered how Dixie had contracted this disease.
Recently in Eastern North Carolina, coyotes have become very prevalent - and they are hosts for Neospora. Cox recalls a conversation with Smith who said she had seen coyotes near her home in Cape Carteret and had caught Dixie eating a deer carcass two months prior to the onset of her seizures.
Jodie Owen, public information officer with the N.C. Wildlife Organization, said coyotes are not only native to North America but are “found in all 100 counties of North Carolina.”
Cox said after Dixie’s diagnosis of Neospora caninum on Dec. 6, 2017, she lived seizure free for nearly six weeks while continuing to take the medication just long enough to spend Christmas with her family and play in the snow for the first time. On Jan. 15, 2018, the same day Smith's husband returned from deployment, Dixie experienced eight grand-mal seizures within two hours, according to Cox.
Dixie never regained full consciousness and she was euthanized.
No canine vaccine
"I truely believe she waited until my husband returned home," Smith said. "This whole experience taught me to trust my gut instinct. If a diagnosis doesn't sound right, get another opinion. Our dogs can't talk so we have to speak for them."
Cox feels because Dixie went undiagnosed for seven months, the parasite eventually encysted in her brain, and Dixie lost her life because of it. Smith said she's always been animal advocate, but Dixie's case has strengthened her advocacy for animal heath and welfare.
There is no canine vaccine that prevents this disease at this time, Cox said, and the best prevention for your pet is prohibiting them from eating raw meat. Cox believes hunters should be aware and not leave carcass in the field if possible, and cattle ranchers and dairy farmers should take measures to remove deceased cattle and aborted fetuses from their farm.
Cox is currently treating a second dog who came to her clinic a few weeks ago presenting different symptoms than Dixie.
Remy, a 5-year-old pit mix who came in on May 21, was weak and had weight loss, according to Cox. Remy’s initial test for Neospora came back “suspect” and will undergo a second test in two weeks to get an actual reading.
Cox said regular vet visits are vital to combating this parasite.
“Dogs that are clinically affected and symptomatic usually do not shed oocysts in their feces. It is very rare to find this parasite in routine fecal exams. A blood test performed by your veterinarian is the best way to diagnose this disease. Early detection is paramount for full recovery,” Cox said.
Reporter Mike McHugh can be reached at 910-219-8455 or email email@example.com.