ASHLAND — After their Norwich terrier, Ashlynn, finished her lunch on June 19, Richard and Pam Brewer took the 12-year-old dog on her customary walk around their property just outside of Ashland.
As they rounded a turn near an oak tree, the playful Ashlynn rummaged under some fallen leaves and emerged with something white in her mouth.
Richard thought it was a piece of foul-smelling chicken and took it out of her mouth and later tossed it in the trash. Five hours later, Ashlynn was vomiting. Two days later, she was dead.
"By the time she was throwing up, it was already too late," says Pam Brewer, a retired book editor. "It doesn't make any sense."
Ashlynn had followed her nose right to her death, a victim of the poisonous "Death Cap" mushroom, which is a bigger threat to dogs than most pet owners likely ever imagined.
And the most deadly place could be your own backyard, where the Amanita phalloide mushroom could pop up just like it did in the Brewers' yard.
The couple never knew that Death Caps cause half of all mushroom-related fatalities in people or that it's the most prominent fungal killer of dogs, according to a study published in Veterinary Medicine magazine.
"Dogs do eat mushrooms, and if they eat the wrong kind it can be pretty rapidly fatal — just like in people," says Diana Schropp, a critical-care specialist at Southern Oregon Veterinary Specialty Center in Medford, where Ashlynn was treated but died Friday.
"I usually see one a year where we know, or are very certain, a dog ingested mushrooms and they died," she says.
Of all the crazy things a dog could eat in your backyard, the Death Cap has a greater-than-average opportunity to live up to its name because of one small but deadly factor — its smell.
As a Death Cap decays, it gives off the aroma of something akin to dead fish.
"That's what attracts dogs more than anything else, the smell," says Bob Burch, a Jacksonville mushroom expert who does emergency field identifications for the Oregon Poison Control Center and was called in on Ashlynn's case.
"Dogs have that natural instinct to roll in stuff and eat stuff that smells," Burch says.
While Death Caps and other dangerous mushrooms are more commonly expected to pop up in forest duff and other damp, shady spots, well-tended backyards where pet owners leave their dogs for hours at a time can be Death Cap fruiting grounds.
The spores can live in landscape mulch and even in potting soils of flowers transplanted into gardens, Burch says. Regular irrigation can spur mushrooms to pop up literally overnight, and they can fruit in this region anytime from spring through fall, Burch says.
The past few days can be perfect for them, when a hot spell follows cool, rainy days.
"We tell people to police their yards, especially during the kind of weather we have now — periods of rain, moisture and then sun," Schropp says.
"I suggest no person or pet eat a wild mushroom, even if it looks like ones you get in a store," Schropp says.
The Brewers don't recall seeing any mushrooms, let alone Death Caps, on their nearly 1-acre property and didn't really think mushroom when Ashlynn had one in her mouth.
When she first started vomiting around dinner time, Brewer thought little of it.
"Dogs throw up all the time," she says.
After it persisted, they began to worry and fetched the mushroom out of the trash.
It was white and about 3 inches tall with a 2-inch cap. It was deteriorating and didn't sport the tell-tale gills and veil-like membrane on the upper stalk.
The Brewers know enough about mushrooms to realize they can be deadly, so they whisked Ashlynn to the center.
"I kept thinking, is this really happening?" she says.
At the center, Ashlynn threw up again. This time, a piece of the mushroom came out.
They started talking Death Cap.
"We have a really bad feeling when we believe it's a Death Cap mushroom," Schropp says.
The toxins are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and primarily attack the liver and kidneys.
Doctors treated Ashlynn with fluids and charcoal to filter what they could. By the next day, her blood pressure and temperature spiked.
The Brewers met with Burch, who couldn't positively identify the mushroom as a Death Cap, but he was pretty sure.
"I kept thinking, there must be a one-in-a-million chance of this happening," she says.
By June 21, the toxins were pummeling Ashlynn's liver and kidneys. Doctors could only keep per comfortable.
The Brewers visited her that Friday and said goodbye.
Schropp says it's likely that cases of mushroom poisoning in dogs get overlooked, with liver failure chalked up to other reasons.
"It's not real common that we specifically know what the dog ingested," she says.
The best thing to do is, once you think your dog has eaten a mushroom, get them to the vet immediately, Schropp says.
"We have very reliable ways of making a dog throw up," she says.
The loss still nauseates Brewer, who can't shake the what-if feeling. What if they had noticed immediately that it was a mushroom?
And why did Ashlynn's nose betray her for that split second beneath the oak tree?
"I'm puzzled over this," she says. "It's so hard to believe.
"But it had to be the smell."