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Salmon nearly kills Oak Harbor man's beloved German shepherd

Oak Harbor resident Darryl Newell, a hobby photographer, took this photo of his beloved German shepherd, Hope. She is now recovering from salmon poisoning.  - Photo by Darryl Newell
Oak Harbor resident Darryl Newell, a hobby photographer, took this photo of his beloved German shepherd, Hope. She is now recovering from salmon poisoning.
— image credit: Photo by Darryl Newell

An Oak Harbor man nearly lost his canine savior and constant companion to a disease that can be fatal to dogs, but few people seem aware of despite its prevalence in the Pacific Northwest.

Darryl Newell hopes to change that on Whidbey Island by alerting dog owners, veterinarians and especially fishermen to the dangers of salmon poisoning. It’s an infectious disease that  infects dogs, as well as coyotes and wolves, that ingest raw salmon, trout or giant salamanders.

Newell had never heard of the ailment when his beloved German shepherd, Hope, suddenly became deathly ill this fall with diarrhea, vomiting and lethargy so bad she could barely walk. She picked up the fluke-transmitted illness by eating salmon scraps left behind by fishermen who cleaned their fish on the beach at North Whidbey’s Rocky Point.

“Who knows how many dogs have died from eating salmon pieces left behind on beaches,” he said. “Most people know you don’t feed dark chocolate to dogs because it’s poison. Those same people don’t know about raw salmon.”

His dog’s health is extraordinarily important to Newell because Hope isn’t your typical pet. She is a rare seizure-alerting, service dog that’s saved Newell’s life at least twice.

“If something happened to her, I don’t know what I would do,” he said. “I really don’t.”

Newell and Hope have a very special relationship. Newell, a retired lead designer and developer for IBM, has owned and raised German shepherds since he was 13 years old. He became friends with a couple who are among the top German shepherd breeders in the nation. About six years ago, he talked them into letting him adopt a 3-year-old show dog named Hope.

Newell showed his new dog for about a year, and she did well, but then both of their lives changed dramatically six years ago.

Newell remembers sitting on the edge of his bed, feeling kind of light-headed, when Hope suddenly ran into the room “screaming,” he said. He woke up about up 45 minutes later after having what he would later learn was a seizure.

Unfortunately for Newell, the power in Oak Harbor was out at the time, so he couldn’t call for help. He was very weak and crawled across the street to a neighbor’s house, but nobody answered the door. He went to another house, but again nobody answered.

Fortunately, his dog was following him.

“I told Hope, ‘You have to help me,’” he said.

Newell grabbed onto the dog and she dragged him to a house with an open garage door. They alerted a man inside who called for help on his cell phone.

At Whidbey General Hospital, Newell had a series of seizures caused by a still-undiagnosed blood disorder that diminishes his red blood cells to dangerous levels. He said his wonder dog came to the hospital with him; a doctor would later tell him that Hope became upset just before each seizure.

“He said she has an instinct for it and that’s rare,” he said.

To bolster the pooch’s natural ability to sense impending seizures, Newell sent her to a specialized trainer in Idaho for a couple of months.

Since then, they’ve been nearly inseparable. While he’s been able to get his medical problems largely under control, he’s had five seizures in the last six years. Hope lets him know one is coming by staring at him, nipping and whining in an unmistakable way. To avoid injuries, he lays on the ground and calls for help.

Newell credits Hope with saving his life.

“If I hadn’t gone to the hospital several different times, I would have just laid down and died,” he said.

Newell and Hope are very well known around town, especially at businesses they frequent. Some people even keep dog biscuits handy for their visits. They’ve traveled 500,000 miles together on trips he likes to take every few months down the coast, across to the Grand Canyon and up through Yellowstone.

The one place he didn’t bring the dog was to the gym, but then he had a seizure there that broke his nose and caused “a bloody mess,” he said. Since then, he started walking with Hope at the beach at Rocky Point, which is where she apparently ate a piece of salmon left behind by a fisherman.

According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, salmon poisoning in dogs is caused by the bacterium Neorickettsia helminthoeca. Dogs become infected by eating even a tiny amount of salmon or similar fish that contains a fluke carrying the bacteria.

The signs of the illness appear from five to seven days after the dog eats the infected fish. About 90 percent of untreated animals die. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea and fever, according to the manual.

After Hope became sick, Newell brought her to their regular veterinarian on Whidbey, but the animal doctor didn’t know what was wrong. Luckily, Newell then brought her to Dr. Lee Anderson at the Anacortes Animal Hospital and he suspected salmon poisoning.

Anderson had Newell rush the dog to the VCA Veterinary Specialty Center in Lynnwood for treatment. He said a team of a dozen specialized veterinarians went to work on her. They hooked her up to an IV, pumped her full of fluids, antibiotics and other medicine, and ran a battery of tests.

Anderson explained that salmon poisoning was suspected, but never confirmed. The vets in Lynnwood didn’t want to wait for test results, so they treated Hope with antibiotics that cover a range of ailments and she responded. In fact, Anderson said he’s never had a confirmed case of salmon poisoning, but commonly treats dogs with gastrointestinal problems with antibiotics.

“Some of those cases could well have been salmon poisoning,” he said.

It took a few days in the animal hospital and many thousands of dollars, but Hope survived. They’ve returned to the beach, but now Newell keeps her out of the tall grass where there might be fish pieces. His greatest hope is that signs could be put up at fishing beaches to warn fisherman about the consequences of leaving behind salmon guts.

For now, he said he’s enjoying his time with “the world’s friendliest German shepherd.”

“She such a beautiful dog,” he said. “She’s a very tender, sweet and gentle German shepherd.”

 

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