Visiting Veterinarian : Seeing stars
Imagine First Dog Bo has been romping the Vineyard shores with his family this week. Our Hawaiian-raised President is undoubtedly beach-savvy-but Bo? He's a city dog. If there's one thing I know about city dogs, it's that they get into trouble in the country. Bo's a Portuguese Water Dog to boot, and if there's one thing I know about Portuguese Water Dogs, it's that they'll eat anything. Really. Anything. I'm not making this up. According to ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, their toxicologists receive twice as many hotline calls about Portuguese Water Dogs than expected based on breed popularity. It's a logical result of the breed's high energy and oral nature. So for Bo - and all resident Rovers and vacationing Vislas, a few dining recommendations.
Don't eat starfish. You might think this obvious. Who would eat spiny, unappetizing Echinoderms? Dogs. That's who. Portuguese Water Dogs. To be fair, street vendors at the Beijing Olympics sold starfish on a stick, and people ate them, but Asian cuisine is another topic. Islanders may have noticed this year's dramatic surge in starfish population. Dr. Frederick Hotchkiss called me recently. He's a marine paleobiologist. (How cool is that?) A friend of his collected 50 Vineyard starfish, took them to Florida, and dried them for a project, which was never completed - because her dog ate them. Yep, all 50. No, not a Portuguese Water Dog. An Alaskan Malamute, but don't get me started on Northern breeds. After vomiting profusely, the dog became paralyzed. Had I seen this before? Did I have any advice for the Florida veterinarian?
Several species of starfish contain a poison called tetrodotoxin. Ingestion causes numbness, vomiting, diarrhea, then paralysis, which may rapidly progress to respiratory arrest and death. There is no antidote. Tetrodotoxin is also found in blue-ringed octopus, some newts, frogs, crabs, and, infamously, puffer fish. Known in Japan as fugu, puffer fish are considered a delicacy there. If not properly prepared, it can be deadly. The first recorded case of tetrodotoxin poisoning is found in the logs of explorer Captain James Cook. In 1774, his crew prepared local tropical fish for dinner and fed the scraps to the pigs. "We were seized with an extraordinary weakness in all our limbs attended with a numbness or sensation like to that caused by exposing ones hands or feet to a fire after having been pinched by frost," Cook writes. "I had almost lost the sense of feeling nor could I distinguish between light and heavy bodies, a quart pot of water and a feather was the same in my hand... In the morning one of the pigs which had eat the entrails was found dead." Captain Cook survived his puffer fish encounter only to be killed in Hawaii five years later in a scuffle with the indigenous people. But I digress.
According to ASPCA toxicologists, North Atlantic starfish do not contain tetrodotoxin. So what paralyzed the malamute? Without a battery of tests, there's no way to know for sure, but eating stuff off the beach is just plain risky. In New Zealand this month, deaths of dogs, penguins, fish, and dolphins, are being tentatively linked to ingestion of sea slugs, when scientists isolated tetrodotoxin from a slug in the vomit of a dying dog. Normally harmless, no one knows yet how the sea slug came to contain the toxin. Investigation is ongoing. It's also possible that algae are to blame for the deaths. Toxic marine phytoplankton periodically go through blooms, sometimes called red tide. Not even Portuguese Water Dogs binge on phytoplankton, but filter-feeding shellfish do. Eat those contaminated shellfish, you can end up with diarrheal, amnesic, neurotoxic, or paralytic shellfish poisoning faster than you can say, "Pass the hot sauce." Symptoms may include tingling or burning oral sensations, abdominal pain, diarrhea, headache, disorientation, seizures, memory loss, weakness, and paralysis. But don't let this ruin your visit to the raw bar. The Division of Marine Fisheries monitors harmful algal blooms and bans shellfish harvesting in affected areas.
What about jellyfish? Lambert's Cove Beach posted a warning this week. "Pink jellyfish are here. Lifeguards can treat your stings. Go to station." You got to love the Vineyard. Our most common jellyfish are harmless "moon jellies" (though I think what my kids call moon jellies are actually hydromedusae, but don't quote me). When we do get something with a bit more bite, they're pink. How adorable. If you get stung? That cute lifeguard will take care of you.
Now in Hawaii this week, they closed Hanauma Bay because 2,000 Portuguese men-of-war washed up on the beach, with more in the water. Many Hawaiian beaches also have massive monthly invasions of nasty box jellyfish ten days after each full moon. By comparison, our local jellies pose only minor risks. We do see Lion's Mane and Portuguese men-of-war, but usually not by the thousands. Stings can be extremely painful but fatalities are rare, occurring primarily if individuals are allergic. If you or your dog have a marked or persistent reaction, seek medical attention immediately, but, in general, if Bo encounters a jellyfish, don't panic. And if he eats it, he may get an upset tummy, but that's about it.
A Chinese recipe I found says a jellyfish "doesn't have any special taste of its own, but its gelatinous texture is highly enjoyable." Okay, if you say so. Right up there with starfish on a stick. I admire people with adventurous palates; I'm just not one of them. I don't eat anything with tentacles. Or suckers. I don't eat anything raw that I saw in vet school in parasitology, bacteriology, or toxicology lab. I suggest your dogs - especially Portuguese Water Dogs - do the same.
Humans? You're on your own.