On Nov. 2, Renee Bliss of Bellingham was in Seattle helping a friend find flowers for a wedding and her husband, Bill, was out of town on business when she learned the terrible news.
Their son Dustin had gone to their house on Lake Whatcom and found Milo, the family's 8-year-old pug, dead, and their other pug, 10-year-old Maggie, in bad shape with vomiting and diarrhea.
Nine days later, Maggie was put down. The dogs had eaten poisonous mushrooms in the family's yard.
"It just breaks my heart," Renee Bliss said.
The Blisses got Maggie when their sons were still at home, and later got Milo to keep Maggie company. They loved their pugs and started a club for pug owners to share fun with their dogs.
"They were our kids," Renee Bliss said, "our babies."
In 2009, the deaths of three dogs, possibly four, due to mushroom poisoning were tallied by the North American Mycological Association. The actual toll could be higher because people sometimes don't realize that mushrooms caused their pet's death, or can't afford to pay for tests to confirm it.
Most mushrooms are not poisonous, and not all cases of eating toxic ones result in death. But there is no antidote for mushroom poisoning, so the Blisses want people to realize the risk and to take steps to protect their pets and children.
"I don't want to see anybody go through this," Renee Bliss said. "It's just horrible."
Taking precautions is important because mushroom poisons can do their harm quickly, and because most people find it difficult to distinguish safe mushrooms from dangerous ones.
"I could say avoid little brown mushrooms, which most of these things are, but there are little white mushrooms that are poisonous too," said Fred Rhoades, an expert on mushrooms and lichens who's a biology research associate at Western Washington University.
The Blisses didn't know poisonous mushrooms grew in their yard, but they aren't oblivious about health and safety measures. They have a 3-year-old grandson who visits often, so they keep hazardous materials tucked away, Renee Bliss said. They confined their dogs to their yard by an invisible fence, and cleaned up their dogs' waste.
Renee Bliss said they had seen their pugs - "They tend to be these little four-legged vacuum cleaners" - eat mushrooms in their yard, but those weren't the fatal variety. Then they ate some deadly ones.
Bliss said Milo might have choked on his own vomit after Dustin took Maggie to Fountain Veterinary Hospital. The family sent a sample of the vomit to an animal disease lab at Washington State University, where they found evidence of Inocybe mushrooms, which, Rhoades said, are poisonous and especially hazardous to dogs.
The Blisses also collected mushrooms from their yard to show to a mushroom expert, called a mycologist. Rhoades studied the samples and identified a second poisonous kind, Galerina, which the dogs also might have eaten.
Veterinarian Pete Dudenhefer, who saw Maggie at Fountain, said if mushroom poisoning is discovered early, he tries to limit the animal's intake of the toxin by having it vomit or by giving the animal activated charcoal so it will pass the poison in its feces. If too much time has elapsed, however, a vet can only try to treat the poison's symptoms.
Mushrooms can also poison cats, of which the Blisses have two, although cats are less inclined to eat them, according to the North American Mycological Association. Dogs are especially attracted to several poisonous species, including Inocybe, that smell like fish, according to the association.
With their two sons, Dustin, 26, and Tyler, 28, both grown, the Blisses now must adjust to a new routine at home that's both sad and sudden.
"It's awful quiet in the house," Renee Bliss said. "The cats are loving it because they don't have to compete with the dogs, but it's not the same."
KEEPING MUSHROOMS AT BAY
Most mushrooms are not poisonous, and they play an important role in nature by breaking down dead organic matter and by having beneficial symbiotic relationships with other plants. Still, for people concerned about the risk of poisoning, steps can be taken to reduce wild mushrooms in areas where pets and children might have access to them.
Removing leaves, thatch and other organic material, including animal waste and rotting wood, will discourage mushrooms, but not necessarily all fungi that pose a risk to pets.
Mushrooms become dormant after a hard freeze, but mushrooms, including poisonous ones, can pop up anytime, including in winter.
Removing the visible bodies of mushrooms will remove the objects that pets or children might put into their mouths, but it won't eliminate the mushroom entirely. That's because their ongoing base is an underground mass of threadlike growth, called mycelium.
Long-term, good lawn care - including thatching, aerating and the spreading of lime - will help keep mushrooms down.
"Other than liming, there really isn't anything you can do," said Fred Rhoades, a mycologist active in Northwest Mushroomers Association.
SAFETY TIPS: ACT QUICKLY, SAVE SAMPLES
If mushroom poisoning of a pet or person is suspected, these steps are advised:
- Get the victim to treatment as quickly as possible. If the person is unconscious, has collapsed or has difficulty breathing, call 911.
- Call the Washington Poison Center - 800-572-5842 for pets, 800-222-1222 for people. The center's website is wapc.org.
- To locate a local expert for help identifying mushrooms, see the Northwest Mushroomers Association website at northwestmushroomers.org or contact Jack Waytz at 360-303-4079 or Fred Rhoades at email@example.com.
- Gather samples of any mushrooms the person or pet might have consumed. Refrigerate the samples in a paper bag, wax paper or foil - but not a plastic bag - until they can be identified. Take note whether the area where the mushrooms were gathered might have been tainted with pesticides or other contaminants.
- If the person or pet vomited, save some of it for possible analysis.
- For more basic information, see the North American Mycological Association's website, namyco.org.
Reach DEAN KAHN at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2291.