8 dogs contract Snail Fever, pond drained

By Zenaida Sengo • The Times-Independent

Mill Creek Animal Hospital recently diagnosed another eight dogs with a rare (Gulf State) parasite, after having diagnosed three dogs with the same parasitic worm last month, two of which resulted in death and one more suspected to have died from it some time back. The third dog was treated and has recovered.

The dogs were regulars at a pond in Moab’s Mulberry Grove community.

On Dec. 13, Dr. Eric “Sam” Loker, a parasitologist from the University of New Mexico arrived in Moab to see if he could collect snails from the pond, thought to be the host for what’s commonly referred to as snail fever. The parasite has never been documented in Utah, and is most prevalent in Texas.

“The question people keep asking me is, ‘Why is it here?,’ and I’d love to know the answer,” said Loker. A number of people including Loker, Mill Creek Animal Hospital’s Dr. Suzy Pape, the Southeast Utah Health Department, Utah Department of Natural Resources, two residents, two infected dogs and Loker’s wife were all at the pond crawling around Dec. 13 before Pape found the first snails a few feet away from the water in the mud.

Loker was ecstatic. The first step was to do a molecular screening and examine its DNA. “I’m most interested in the evolutionary and ecological aspects,” he said. Loker explained that if it turned out to be a different species of snail, one that was native to the area, then it might show that the parasite is taking up a new host. But if it was indeed the snail from the Gulf region, which he suspected, then it would suggest it was infiltrating the area as a result of climate change.

The schistosomiasis (flat-worm) species in question, Heterobilharzia americana, prefers warmer water. Approximately 200,000 people die annually from schistosomiasis disease in warmer climates where clean water is scarce.

Along with the small tubs of snails, Loker collected raccoon scat. The parasite infects many different animals and raccoons are some of the more diligent transmitters, he said. The parasite could have come in with the feces of a raccoon or a dog from Texas and made its way into the pond, or with the snails that are moving to states farther north due to climate change.

Loker said “no” when asked if anyone should be concerned about crawling around in the mud with parasites. “The most likely time of transmission would have been mid to late summer,” he said, and added that the concern would be for next year when high temperatures return and the pond has potential for re-infection.

Pape advises clients with dogs that have any of the symptoms (diarrhea, weight loss, excessive drinking and urination, blood in the waste) to get tested, even if the symptoms have been inconsistent over a long period of time. The fecal test, which has to be sent to a special lab, costs about five times more than usual.

It was only discovered because Mill Creek Animal Hospital’s Dr. Scott Dolginow, perplexed from the abnormal deterioration and eventual death of a client’s dog, sought a necropsy on his own in an effort to unravel the mystery. The pond is reportedly drained periodically. This time the pipe that carries excess water to nearby Mill Creek was plugged so the water settled into adjacent soil, according to a representative from the health department.

“It’s a good thing he did the necropsy,” said Pape as she described the lesions on a dog she would have pegged as lymphoma. “If we can catch it early the prognosis is much better. Once it travels into their organs, the condition becomes much worse and harder to treat.”

Pape said it’s possible that she, Dolginow and Loker might work on a veterinary research paper together. So far, four precautionary tests on dogs not associated with the pond came back negative.