It started in September. Dr. Brandi Gallagher was challenged with a case of seven dogs, all of which presented acute liver injuries. In the weeks that followed, the local veterinarian, who works as a specialist at the Animal Cancer Care Clinic, realized they all had one thing in common: exposure to water.
“The patients were brought into the pet emergency room, and given the commonalities in their symptoms, we realized there was one underlying factor,” says the 38-year-old who moved to Stuart four years ago. “During that time, and even now, we’re working diligently to provide medical care for these animals.”
Since the outbreak, Dr. Gallagher has been instrumental in the research of the bacteria from the St. Lucie River and its impact on animals. She also continues to help diagnose and treat pets with cancer, and in her free time she can be found taking “Johnny Utah,” her family’s furry friend, to the beach.
Why pursue veterinary medicine?
When I was 6 years old, my parents had gotten me a kitten. The first time he got sick, we drove him to a vet in Jacksonville. I was fascinated with the doctor who took care of him, and that’s when I decided one day I would become a vet, too.
How did you come to specialize in diagnosing and treating animals with cancer?
I’m not an oncologist. My specialty incorporates all systems of the body, giving me the chance to study complex medical problems and offer treatments. As an internist, I most often diagnose the type and severity of the cancer, and then I consult with staff oncologists on the best course of treatment and, while they are the ones to administer the chemotherapy, radiation, or perform surgery, I’m right there with them on the medical management follow-up, which could include ultrasound, X-rays, and so on. I’m also the physician most likely to handle the animal’s aftercare once their cancer is in remission.
Tell us about the dogs affected by the algae bloom from the St. Lucie River.
They all had commonalities in their clinical symptoms. We focused on protecting the liver from infection and keeping the patients stable. It took time for us to prove our toxicity theory, which was the exposure to a microcystin toxin produced by cyanobacteria found in the water. All of the dogs were exposed to the water at some point in late August through September. Six of the seven patients actually lived on the St. Lucie River. Some were exposed to dead fish or had direct contact with the water, too.
Where are you now with investigating the bacterial affects on animals?
We’re still working on collecting samples from some of the patients to study how long the bacteria has lasted in their systems. We’re also still in discussions with various scientific members of the community, sharing information in order to hopefully substantiate the problem.
How can pet owners keep animals safe?
Pet owners should be aware that this event would very possibly happen again. We also know we can’t fix the problem overnight. It’s important for me to express the need for being hypervigilant when it comes to pets. If they start to act sick in anyway, such as vomiting or acting lethargic, take them to a vet immediately. Be your pet’s advocate and know that there are vets in the community who know how to treat your animals.