Marie Heckemeyer and her husband are living every pet owner’s worst nightmare. The mysterious respiratory illness that is stumping veterinarians across the U.S. has hit their family hard, already claiming the life of one of their beloved dogs.
When this all began in September, they could have never predicted the hell they would be living today. The couple was preparing to take an extended vacation to Italy to celebrate their 20th anniversary. The flights were booked, the bags were packed and all they had left to do was make sure their pack of dogs were safely cared for while they were gone.
Heckemeyer is a passionate dog owner, who volunteers at a local dog rescue in her home area near Colorado Springs, Colorado. She also administrates a Facebook group for snow dog lovers across the globe. So it didn’t take long for her and her husband to hear horror stories about a new illness popping up in dogs across their state right before they were set to leave on their trip.
Before dropping off their dogs at a local branch of a boarding franchise, Heckemeyer said she reached out to the camp to ask what precautions they were taking in response to the rapidly spreading sickness. She said they told her they were sanitizing their facility more often and had a veterinarian on staff to monitor the dogs in their care for symptoms so that they could immediately take action.
Heckemeyer said she took the extra steps of booking her dogs their own private cabin at the boarding camp and made sure she had an emergency contact and her personal vet on file in case something happened while they were away.
“I thought I did my due diligence but apparently it was not enough,” she said.
Two days after the Heckemeyers had returned from their trip and picked up their pups, they had to rush one of them, Thunder, to the emergency vet because he was consistently coughing and throwing up blood.
The vet diagnosed Thunder with kennel cough. A few days later, he was examined by a cardiologist to ensure his heart was not straining from his respiratory rate. Heckemeyer said he was kept overnight at the hospital and was given medication and fluids.
Thunder was re-examined by doctors about a week later and still showed signs of kennel cough. The medical staff performed some gastrointestinal tests on him because, on top of vomiting blood, he began to show blood in his stool.
Heckemeyer said Thunder underwent exploratory surgery on Oct. 11 as vet staff worked to figure out the source of his internal bleeding.
It wasn’t long before their other dogs started showing the same symptoms. Denver and Moose were eventually diagnosed with kennel cough too before X-rays showed all three dogs were fighting pneumonia, Heckemeyer said.
Ten days later their fourth dog, Bronco, started coughing and it wasn’t long before he was diagnosed with kennel cough too, Heckemeyer said.
As the other dogs’ conditions worsened throughout the month of October, Thunder wasn’t showing any signs of improvement despite being prescribed more antibiotics.
On Nov. 4, Denver and Moose went into respiratory distress and Moose was kept at the hospital overnight for monitoring before returning home.
That same day, Heckemeyer started publicly posting on Facebook about the trauma her family was living through with her dogs to help other pet owners know what symptoms to look for.
“I just wanted to share this video for anyone whose dog is coughing. Note how his neck is extended and his nose is pointed up. The vet explained that is because he is fighting for oxygen. Anyone notice their dog doing this please take them to the ER ASAP,” Heckemeyer said on a video post of Moose.
There was a glimmer of hope for Thunder the next day, on Nov. 5. Heckemeyer said he seemed happy and playful, like his normal self. But he suddenly began to cough again and went into respiratory distress.
Within an hour she said they had Thunder back at the hospital. But the vet told them he might not make it through the night.
Around 2 a.m. on Nov. 6, they got the call. Heckemeyer and her husband returned to the vet to say their goodbyes to Thunder. He was just six years old.
“I felt like I lost my best friend. This past week has been one of the hardest of my life,” Heckemeyer described. “I wake up in the morning and start the grieving process all over as I remember he is gone and I won’t get his cuddles. My mind plays tricks on, me when I see a shadow or look out in the yard for a second my heart stops, thinking this was all a nightmare.”
The nightmare hasn’t ended for the Heckemeyer family.
Their dog Moose went into respiratory distress again four days after Thunder died. Bronco and Denver’s symptoms worsened, with one developing an ulcer from all of the medication he’s had to take. All three dogs have been in and out of the emergency vet, Heckemeyer said.
“I cannot take much more of this,” Heckemeyer said in a recent Facebook post about Bronco’s worsening condition. “If you know me you know he is my soul dog, my heart dog, my favorite. I will stress again PLEASE keep your dogs at home. Vaccines, grooming, social can all wait.”
Heckemeyer said, “I dread daily I will wake up and another will die. I am so rattled by this whole situation. I am beating myself up for putting them in camp.” She added that her husband feels the same way.
The couple has spent thousands on oxygen chambers for their dogs to stay in at home because there weren’t enough of them available at their veterinary hospital. The vet told Heckemeyer they’ve asked the state for assistance because they’ve become overwhelmed with the amount of dogs becoming sick with this unknown respiratory infection.
Even with pet insurance, their vet bills are adding up. According to Heckemeyer, the total vet bill for Thunder was nearly $17,000, including prescription medications.
Since sharing her updates on social media, Heckemeyer said pet owners from other states have reached out to her for answers to their fearful questions. “I am on a mission to spread the word,” Heckemeyer said.
Veterinarians and animal shelters in Oregon, California, Nevada and the Heckemeyers' home state of Colorado have all notified their respective communities about the illness spreading through the canine community. Until more is known about it, they’ve encouraged dog owners to keep them away from social settings and be on the lookout for symptoms like coughing, change of appetite and abnormally low energy.
Heckemeyer just hopes that while they continue to help their remaining dogs fight off the illness, she can be a voice for them so other dog parents don’t have to suffer the same heartache.
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