On Friday morning, Mollie had a touch of diarrhea. It lasted only about an hour, and later in the day she seemed quite normal. We left that afternoon for a weekend at the Edgeworth Open Sheepdog Trial, keeping in mind that I should watch for any return of trouble and, if necessary, withdraw her from the trial.
Arriving at the trial, she was obviously eager to work and showed no sign of any illness. She was eating well and in fine spirits. I had no qualms about sending her out on Saturday afternoon to gather sheep at 600 yards' distance. It seemed to me that she slowed down a bit at the top, but the judge had to watch with binoculars to see what was happening at that distance, and with the naked eye I couldn't be sure. Couldn't be sure, that is, until the sheep started to run. Mollie gave it everything she had, but it wasn't enough. The sheep simply outran her, off the field and gone.
My friends were sympathetic: "How old is she? Nearly nine? We-e-e-lll, you know, lots of dogs retire at that age." I didn't want to hear it. Nine wasn't old enough, l thought, to assume age was the problem. And there was that diarrhea on Friday morning. I went home without running the second day.
Monday morning Mollie and I went to the vet. We put her through a lot of tests, the ones the vet calls her "geriatric workup." Everything was normal. A fecal smear showed the culprit: nasty microorganisms called Giardia. These little devils are part of a group of critters that cause the general condition known in human travelers as "Montezuma's revenge": persistent diarrhea, occasionally bloody. It may also cause vomiting. It can be present as a chronic condition, flaring up occasionally under stress. Giardia infect the upper part of the small intestine, interfering with digestion, preventing proper absorption of nutrients, and eventually damaging the intestinal lining. Cysts of the microbes are passed in the stool, where they may be detected microscopically. Sometimes repeated exams are needed to find them.
Giardiasis is not just a disease of dogs; in occurs in humans, cats, and almost any other animal. It is passed through the infected feces, which make their way into food or water. Because it is relatively common in wild animals as well as domestic ones, it can be found in water that seems be perfectly clean, not just in that obviously putrid pool of sludge your dog insists on drinking from. Crystal-clear streams in part of the Shenandoah National Park have signs posted on them warning of the danger of Giardia contamination. More obvious sources are the puddles and streams running through farmland, water bowls and food belonging to other dogs, and of course that tempting tub of water that all the trial dogs are dipping in to cool off after a strenuous run on the course.
Because you can catch it from your dog, good personal hygiene is important around an infected dog. Food and water dishes should be cleaned and feces handled with care. Exposure to the sun and drying out will help. My vet says the disease was particularly common this summer, for whatever reason.
Luckily for all of us, Giardia is curable. A medication called "Flagyl" is used over several days, followed by a second fecal exam to be sure that the cysts are gone. If your dog, like mine, tends to drink out of all sorts of natural water sources, you should watch for signs of the disease and check promptly with your vet. There are lots of causes of diarrhea in dogs, but this is an important one. Mollie's symptoms were brief, and without the 600-yard outrun at Edgeworth I might never have realized she had something serious.
My friends are relieved. They are now saying: "Well, you know, lots of dogs have won big trials at 10 or 11. Nine isn't old enough to quit!"