When Kelly VanKerkhove’s almost 13-week-old golden retriever puppy, Maple, was suddenly lethargic and refused to eat any food on the morning of Oct. 14, VanKerkhove knew something was very wrong.
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Local veterinarians thought Maple was showing early signs of a viral disease common among younger dogs, and sent the VanKerkhoves, who live in the Rochester area, home with a multitude of medications.
But within a few hours, Maple’s gums were pale, something the veterinarian had told VanKerkhove to keep an eye on, and she wasn’t moving much.
By this time, the animal hospital had closed for the day and with no local 24/7 options after Veterinary Specialists & Emergency Services in Brighton closed earlier this year, the VanKerkhoves rushed Maple to the closest location — in Buffalo.
“It is the longest hour and 20 minute ride of your life when you have a critically ill dog in your arms,” VanKerkhove said.
Around 24 hours later, Maple died.
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Were death cap mushrooms the culprit?
At both animal hospitals, doctors asked VanKerkhove if the puppy had eaten anything toxic, like mushrooms, since her symptoms pointed to just that. Racking her brain, VanKerkhove couldn’t think of anything Maple would have gotten into that their other two-year-old dog hadn’t also found.
“That evening, when we returned home without her, I became obsessed with trying to find a reason why we just lost her,” VanKerkhove said.
That’s when she found a mushroom with a small bite taken out of it around the century-old oak tree in their front yard.
VanKerkhove sent a picture of the mushrooms scattered throughout her front yard to experts at Cornell who confirmed it was a death cap mushroom, which are poisonous to both animals and humans, and what VanKerkhove believes led to Maple’s death.
A warning for other NY pet owners
The photo VanKerkhove sent last month made its way to mycologist and Cornell professor Kathie T. Hodge, who says VanKerkhove lives in an area where the European species of mushroom were first found in Rochester and have been expanding for over 20 to 30 years.
“They’ve been introduced in multiple places on the East Coast,” Hodge said. “There certainly are some areas in the New Jersey-New York City area where they’ve also been introduced.”
The fungi has a dull green and brown colored umbrella shaped cap, a long white stem with a skirt-like ring just underneath the cap and a cup-like structure at the bottom. It makes its mushrooms only in mid- to late-fall, according to Hodge, and are likely the most deadly mushroom in the world.
“We just didn’t know that this was even a thing,” VanKerkhove said. “[Maple] depended on us and some ways I feel like we failed her and if I had had this information, this wouldn’t have happened.”
There is no antidote to the mushroom’s toxins and Hodge says the toxin itself is difficult to remove from the body because it’s not easily excreted. The toxin typically shuts down the liver and kidneys, which are essential for survival.
Hodge said don’t let your dog eat mushrooms but if they do, take what’s left of the mushroom and find someone who can identify it to ensure the best treatment for your pet.
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How to protect your pets, family from death cap mushrooms
The tree in VanKerkhove’s yard is likely is the host of the death cap mushrooms, according to Hodge.
“It’s almost impossible to get rid of them,” Hodge said. “Those mushrooms are just the fruits of a much larger organism that lives there underground over many years.”
However, there is no danger in touching or smelling mushrooms, so Hodge advises those looking to get rid of the fungi to dig them out, ensuring you get all the way down to the cup around the base, and throw them away.
Another mushroom to be on the lookout for is the destroying angel, a sister species to the death cap, which looks similar but is pure white.
“Even though we were on top of this early, it was already too late for [Maple],” VanKerkhove said. “The more people that get this information, they can check their yards and I guarantee that they’re gonna find some.”