(WMC) - The Mississippi River Valley is one of the most fertile agricultural regions in this country, but lurking in the rich Mid-South soil is a microscopic spore that could kill your pet.
Take it from one Mid-South dog owner who had no idea how dangerous it could be.
Spur the golden retriever is somewhat of a celebrity. The 4-year-old canine, who loves to play in the pool, was featured at a recent American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Conference for his amazing story of survival.
Spur's owner, Brister Shum, says he was struggling to breathe, lost part of his eyesight, and developed skin lesions. Shum's primary vet referred him to Memphis Veterinary Specialists.
"Instead of having Christmas Day like normal people do, we spent it in an emergency vet clinic," Shum said. "Dr. Bill Miller looked at his eye very carefully and said, 'I think its blastmycosis,' and, I said, 'What?' "
Blastomycosis Dermatitadis is a disease caused by a fungus that lives in moist soil. Rhodes College Professor Terry Hill says the fungi looks for organic material to grow—like decomposing wood and leaves.
"It is endemic in this area, most cases that are reported come from areas like this," said Hill.
Dogs that inhale the spores can develop a fungal infection in the lungs, eyes, and on the skin.
Dr. Danielle Bayliss of Memphis Veterinary Specialists says once Spur was diagnosed he spent days in intensive care.
"If it's left untreated, it can absolutely be fatal," Bayliss said.
While all dogs are at risk for blastomycosis, Spur fit the profile of those most susceptible—young large males who keep their nose to the ground.
"His respiration was so compromised, he was in an oxygen chamber," said Shum. "He's always smelling things he loves to eat leaves and wood, and so sniffing is part of his nature."
Dr. Hill says scientists believe there's no way to determine if it is present in the soil.
"It's so mysterious," Hill noted. "We know the reservoirs, the places in nature of virtually every significant fungal pathogen, except for this one."
Preventing your dog from exposure is impossible.
"Dogs that are more active dogs that live perhaps near water like a lake are at higher risk for exposure," Bayliss said. "The earlier we get them the better they tend to do."
Doctors say the only line of defense is to monitor your pet for symptoms such as labored breathing, loss of eye sight, and skin lesions. Fortunately blastomycosis is not contagious, and it is not an epidemic.
"We are seeing patients from a pretty wide radius. Even still it's something that we only see maybe once every month or two," Bayliss said.
Spur is on the mend and is expected to fully recover, but his treatment is ongoing. Thanks to a team of doctors, Spur's bout with blastomycosis was treated in time.
"We've seen the vet about every three weeks since Christmas of 2013, but it's worth it," Shum said. "We're very lucky to have had that team that helped us through it."
Humans can also contract blastomycosis from the soil, but it is very rare. Only about one in every 100,000 people are diagnosed each year.Learn more about blastomycosis in dogs and humans, by clicking here, http://bit.ly/1r4BWJi, and here, http://1.usa.gov/1r5rl0x.