Surviving Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever: One Dog’s Story

By PetMD Editorial on Apr. 14, 2016

By Geoff Williams

Before they married, Angelo and Diana Scala knew they would get a dog and that it would be a Boxer. Sure enough, almost right after their wedding they picked their Boxer Louie from a breeder's litter. When they brought the eight-week old puppy to their home in Downers Grove, Ill., in the waning days of 2010, strangers and neighbors never failed to comment on what a beautiful dog they had. "Louie was very good looking," Angelo said.

He was also absurdly energetic, but since Angelo had grown up with a Boxer, he knew what he and his wife were getting into. The Scalas loved their crazy and hyper dog, who was also sweet-tempered and very loyal. After Diana gave birth to their daughter, Giuliana, Louie acted like her protective older brother. Louie gained another sister a year later when the Scala’s daughter Antonella was born, and as the girls’ cribs were replaced with beds, the dog fell into the habit of giving each girl a smooch on the cheek before their bedtime without any training from his pet parents.

Louie cared for the Scala’s children, and the whole family cared for Louie right back. For several years, the story of Louie’s life was a pleasant, but a pretty unremarkable, one. Then one day in May 2015, a medical mystery resulting from a tick bite tested the Scalas’ resolve as pet parents.

The Beginning of Louie’s Health Problems

The problems started when Louie's nose began to bleed. "The blood wouldn't stop," Diana said. "It wasn't like a little nose bleed. It was terrifying."

Angelo thought maybe there was a scab inside one of his nostrils that kept opening, but Diana was skeptical and feared something much worse. Angelo took Louie to their vet. Some blood work was done, and while the results came back mostly normal, Angelo recalled that something looked elevated. He was told that there may be a problem with Louie's liver or maybe something cancerous, but it was decided that they would wait and check it again at a later time.

In June, before the follow-up appointment, Louie began throwing up his food along with foam. Angelo decided to take him to the vet before he went out of town on a business trip, knowing it would be hard for Diana—who was pregnant with twins in addition to caring for the couple’s two other toddlers—to take the sick dog in for an appointment.

Angelo was told that Louie’s stomach might be on the verge of bloating (a dangerous condition in which a dog's stomach fills with gas, liquid or food so that it expands).

Louie was given medication to help with the gas and scheduled to come back after the weekend. The following Tuesday, Angelo brought Louie back for a follow-up and the numbers in his blood work were even higher, causing the vet to keep Louie in the hospital for the rest of the week. Still thinking that they were dealing with bloat, the vet said they would flush out his kidneys. A few days later, Louie was sent home with the hopes that he might improve over the Fourth of July weekend, but the next day, Louie's hind legs began to swell and Diana kept insisting that something was seriously wrong. The vet agreed and recommended that Louie see a specialist. On the Fourth of July, Angelo took Louie to the Veterinary Specialty Center (VSC) in Buffalo Grove, Ill.

"Louie was quite an ill boy when he [was] presented to the ER for the first time," said Dr. Jennifer Herring, one of the veterinarians who oversaw his care. But she could tell that Angelo and Diana were committed to doing whatever they could to help Louie get through whatever it was that caused the nose bleeds, swelling and vomiting.

A Medical Breakthrough

Despite several tests, doctors had a difficult time pinpointing Louie’s problem.

Louie had been tested for ticks, but vets at the VSC decided to run more extensive parasite tests. Still, nobody had any reason to think Louie had Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, a tick-borne disease that is uncommon in Illinois.

Several days after Louie had been admitted into the VSC, Angelo received a call from a veterinarian who said that Louie wasn't responding to any treatment and that, with Angelo's okay, they were going to try a type of steroid. Angelo agreed to using the drug, but it didn’t seem to help, and the next day he received a phone call telling him that it might be time to let Louie go. The Scalas made a long, quiet drive to see Louie. His body was swollen and his face was blown up like a basketball. Yet Diana and Angelo could tell that Louie looked happy to see them, and that their beloved dog’s spirit was still there.

Before making a final decision on whether or not to put Louie down, the Scalas wanted Dr. Jerry Thornhill, one of VSC’s Internal Medicine Specialists, to weigh in on one more blood test. The next day, Thornhill called Angelo to say that Louie had improved a little overnight and that the test results showed Louie had Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Now the veterinarians knew what they were dealing with.

Diana remembers being told, "This can be treated. Lyme disease would have been much worse."

Living with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

For any canine, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever can cause depression, anorexia, arrhythmia (an irregular heartbeat), blood clotting and death. Louie was prescribed a number of pills and, along with hyperbaric oxygen therapy, he kept slowly but surely improving. When the veterinarians finally said he could go back home, Louie had been in the hospital for 18 days. 

While Angelo credits Louie's doctors for saving their dog, Herring sings the praises of the Scalas and Louie. "Louie was a fighter and his family was right there, by his side, fighting with him," she said.

Almost a year later (and with four kids now in the Scala house), Louie is still recovering. In fact, for months after he was released from the VSC, the Scalas had to take him to the animal hospital every other day to make sure that he continued his hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

Louie’s medical costs currently exceed $60,000, although Angelo estimates he has paid a little over $6,000 out-of-pocket thanks to his pet insurance. Though Louie is still being treated for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, his treatments at the VCS have decreased in frequency. While Louie is still rather gaunt, he seems more like himself with every passing day.

"Now when he gets hyper or crazy, we'll start to say, 'Louie, calm down,'" says Diana. "But then we remember how we thought we might not get Louie back and that we promised ourselves that if he ever gets to drive us nuts again, we're not going to take that for granted. We remember how we wanted one more day, and we're just so glad he made it."

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