For the past week I’ve been aware of a scary condition affecting at least a score of dogs in South Florida. It’s a hindlimb weakness that leads––within hours to days––to paralysis.

It seems to work much like botulism poisoning would so that dogs eventually succumb to the effects of the disease once they can no longer power the muscles they need to breathe with. Essentially, they suffocate. 

Intensive care on a ventilator helps these unlucky dogs power through their days-long paralysis, but that’s been a $15,000 proposition for at least one owner involved. Needless to say, it’s not an option for most of us.

Moreover, the ravages of the disease and the expense of its treatment are heavily compounded by the frustration that attends these cases. Because we have no idea what’s causing them. Because we have to look these owners in the eye and tell them we have no idea why their pets are so sick.

Then comes Friday’s news segment. The most salacious station on the air in our parts had this to say:

Veterinarians at an animal clinic in Cooper City have noticed about 13 cases so far, including one death. One thing in common, vets said, is that all the dogs ingested dead iguanas, which, vets said, can become poisonous as their bodies decay.

As some of you may already know from this past post (in which I set up a makeshift hospital for the dying iggies in my vicinity), iguanas expired in the thousands after our in-the-twenties cold snap. So it stands to reason their poisonous entrails might result in sickness.

Problem is, the news media has a way of getting things not-so-right. And––to my way of seeing things, anyway––some veterinarians are too willing to jump the gun on reporting events to the public before the ducks have been lined up and counted. After all, the investigation is too fresh, not all owners have been appropriately interviewed and at least two of the affected animals had no known exposure to iguanas.

I mean, one is a fru-fru indoor poodle-y thingie. Though, admittedly, she could have scarfed down something small on her morning walk, this isn’t the kind of dog that tears into a dead iguana like some dogs do. In fact, all affected dogs seem to share a distinctly suburban provenance.

Then there’s this to consider: My mother’s dogs dragged dead iguanas around for a week after the cold snap killed them (we couldn’t get them away and the yard is soooo big and wooded there was no easy solution except to assume they’d continue to devour dead iguanas for a while). Why, then, are not the most obvious outdoor property dogs (like my mom’s) coming down with this dreaded “dead iguana disease”?

It just doesn’t make sense to me, this iguana theory. While I’m willing to believe that dead lizards’ bacteria can run to C. botulinum (and produce botulism toxin) under certain conditions, why then is this the first year we’ve noticed such a rash of illness?

It all makes me uneasy, especially when my phones start ringing off the hook before I’ve had my morning coffee. Fielding questions about dead iguanas and what people should do if their dogs got into them? It’s not my cuppa on a Saturday morning when some kind of a warning might’ve been nice. We Florida veterinarians do have an email list-serve, after all.

Which is why I plan on asking for two things next time: (1) Specialty hospitals reporting major local events should perhaps send local veterinarians an alert before passing around press releases to the local media, and (2) do the math before spilling the beans.

Sure, there’s nothing wrong about telling pet owners there might be a plague upon us. But please...don’t just take a wild guess as to its origins unless you’ve got something solid. (After all, it's already pretty obvious that you shouldn't let your dogs eat long-dead things so it's no harm no foul not to belabor this point.)

So what should you do now if you live in South Florida? Keep your pets on a short leash and beware potential toxins. I'd eschew the lawn spray and cook for my pets, too, just in case. But hey––I've been known to go overboard on a regular basis...not just when there's a probable poison a-prowling.