Sometimes I wish dogs would come with a user’s guide. Or at least a list of Do’s and Don’t Do’s. Learning by trial and error is not really great whether it’s about raising kids or taking care of pets (our other kids). Especially on those thankfully rare occasions where the error can prove deadly, yet so easily avoidable with a little bit of knowledge. But in the absence of doggie user guide’s, we have internet and us bloggers and dog lovers who want to get the word out there on the Do’s and Don’t Do’s. Today’s topic is on the Don’t Do list, and it’s an important one: Don’t give your dog raw fish. Ever. Even little tiny bits (like that one extra piece of sushi no one, except the dog, wants). It can be deadly for your dog.

It’s most often called fish poisoning or salmon poisoning (the most likely culprit) which is a little misleading. It’s not really a case of toxic poisoning but a cycle of cause and effect relating to fluke worms and a bacterial organism (called Neorickettsia Helminthoeca – and no I have no idea how to pronounce that) present in raw fish. The most common fish ingested by dogs who get sick is salmon, which is why this is often called salmon poisoning, but any salt water fish that also migrates into fresh water can carry the organism. The organism is only dangerous to dogs; humans, cats and other pets will be safe even if they ate the same fish (although if you digest actual fluke worms usually present in the same fish you can sometimes develop health issues). Once a dog ingests the organism, it spreads from the intestines to lungs, liver, lymph nodes and the brain. Smoking the fish does not kill the fluke cysts that carry the organism, so smoked salmon should not be given to dogs either. Only fully cooking the fish will kill the culprit, and cooked fish is still a great nutrition source for your dog and recommended part of a balanced diet.

It will take about a week for symptoms to actually develop, and the signs are fairly nondescript. Your dog may become lethargic and stop eating or eat less than normal. Fever is also a common symptom. Some get either diarrhea or they vomit, and sometimes you can feel enlarged lymph nodes. It is a difficult illness to diagnose by a vet if they do not know about exposure to raw fish. You can test feces for flukes which would indicate the presence of the organism as well, but there is no test for the organism itself.  If left untreated, most cases are fatal and the dog will die within 2-3 weeks. So if you suspect your dog has managed to find fish scraps and he is exhibiting any symptoms, don’t delay getting him to a vet.

Treatment is usually IV antibiotics and fluids as well as a dewormer. Most dogs will also need to be given extra nutritional support for a longer time period to help recover, and recovery can be slow. Early detection is the key for a good prognosis.

But prevention is by far the best policy here, so focus on eliminating any exposure to raw fish, whether in the wild or from you or other humans. Don’t let the dog nibble on anything it finds on a beach and keep fish scraps away from your dog in the house. Even though not all fish or even all salmon is contaminated with the organism, it’s just not worth taking any chances.