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Salmon Poisoning - The Myth,The Legend, The Truth

By Kim Maun, DVM
Updated: 2009-08-25 6:36 PM 7502 Views    Category: Health and Behavior
 
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It’s one of Mother Nature's most dramatic biological phenomena: Each spring and fall, thousands of salmon come home to Pacific Northwest rivers to spawn. Driven by instinct and sensory cues not fully understood, they doggedly work their way upstream, fighting dams, predators, and pollution, to find their birthplace. Upon reaching the destination, the female lays eggs, which are then fertilized by a male. Then the fish die, their decomposing bodies in turn providing nutrients for the stream which once nurtured their growth.

 
Meanwhile, frolicking about by the river on an innocent, late-August camping trip, your dog suddenly halts, lifts his nose in the air, and rushes off to investigate the fabulous scent he just detected. Reaching the bank, he is overjoyed to find the river thick with dead and dying salmon. For reasons we can only speculate (maybe he thinks you’ll forget to feed him today, maybe he’s getting in touch with his wild dog instincts — maybe, like Chowder, he’s simply obsessed with things dead and dying) he quickly indulges in a meal of decomposing salmon. A week later, he’s “sick as a dog” and, once again, you’re trudging off to your veterinarian’s office.

 

In the veterinary community, the Pacific Northwest is renowned for cases of salmon poisoning. But among the general public, myth and misinformation abound. For example, some people think salmon poisoning is the same thing as Salmonella. This is not true. Salmonella is a bacterial disease. Humans and other animals contract Salmonella from eating contaminated foods. Salmon poisoning is a parasitic disease. Dogs get it from eating raw salmon. And many people are under the impression that salmon is toxic to dogs. Here, the salmon gets an unfair reputation. The name “salmon poisoning” is really inaccurate; it is not the salmon that makes dogs sick. The salmon is merely the innocent carrier of a parasite that causes illness in dogs. Bear with me as I take you on another biological adventure.

 

Residing quietly in some salmon is a parasite, an immature form of a fluke named Nanophyetus salmincola. This parasite, a member of the trematode family, relies upon snails, mammals, birds, and fish to complete its life cycle. Residing quietly in some Nanophyetus flukes is another parasitic organism, a rickettsia named Neorickettsia helminthoeca. (A rickettsial organism is kind of like a bacteria, but not quite.) The rickettsial organism is the culprit in salmon poisoning disease. It may cause severe disease in wild and domestic canines.

 

Five to seven days after your dog’s exotic dining adventure, the fluke attaches to the inner surface of his intestines. The rickettsia is transported through the blood and lymphatic system and may set up residence in his lymph nodes, spleen, liver, and central nervous system. Soon afterwards, he develops acute enteritis, or inflammation of the intestinal tract, characterized by vomiting and bloody diarrhea. Left undiagnosed or untreated, the disease can cause severe dehydration, anemia, and death. When your vet examines him, your dog may have a fever, nasal discharge, and enlarged lymph nodes. Routine medical diagnostics, like blood work, are usually normal, so the history you provide will help your vet make the right diagnosis.

 

Your veterinarian may be able to diagnose salmon poisoning by checking a stool sample for eggs of the fluke. Your vet may also be able to see the rickettsial organisms in samples taken from an enlarged lymph node. This sample can easily be obtained by using a syringe and needle to aspirate, or draw out, cells from tissue.

 

Although the disease can be very severe, it is quite easy to treat once identified. The rickettsial infection can be cleared with routine oral antibiotics. If your dog is very ill, he may need to be hospitalized for treatment of dehydration and intestinal inflammation. In addition, your dog should be given a deworming treatment to eliminate the fluke from his system, although the fluke itself does not cause disease.

 
Freezing or cooking salmon kills the parasites and makes salmon safe for your dog to eat. So don’t hold out on him — share your delectable dinner with your favorite furry friend. 

Safe and happy dining to you both!

 

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