There is no doubt from research in many countries that Malignant Histiocytosis (MH or just histio) is the biggest single Health problem faced by our lovely breed. Presenting with a variety of symptoms making it hard to be sure what you’re dealing with at first, MH can be fatal in just a few days from first noticing symptoms in your beloved pet. Sometimes there may be a briefly encouraging response to steroid based treatment but this is usually short lived. There are similar diseases with similar names, for example Cutaneous Histiocytosis, so your exact diagnosis is important.
This disease is a nasty opponent but there is hope in the fight against it, several notable initiatives around the world are investigating it in different ways. Some of these schemes are becoming international with links in different countries so if your breed club asks you to help please contribute in whatever way you can. This may simply be information about your Bernese or possibly a blood sample. If you are unfortunate and then encounter the disease a further blood or tissue sample may be of great benefit depending on the scheme.
Whilst not confirmed or exactly quantified there does appear to be an hereditary link to MH so it is a good precaution for breeders to consider this in choice of breeding dogs and as with everything else puppy buyers to ask about the health history of any puppy you are thinking of buying. In the UK most people who have an interest feel that the disease is under diagnosed in our British Bernese. One reason for this is the sheer speed of its development, once symptoms are noticed, these can be staggeringly rapid and mean that the poor dog deteriorates so quickly that before a proper investigation can be completed the dog is so ill that it is kinder to say goodbye. Another reason is that many vets do not know much about this condition and a visit to a Veterinary School trade stand at Crufts in recent years confirmed this. A whole group of newly qualified vets had never heard of it and your vet may be the same. The signs can be difficult to interpret even by laboratories and mistakes have been known but as time passes and awareness and knowledge spread hopefully these will become rarer. If your Bernese develops typical symptoms of MH please make your vet aware of the possibility without presuming it is a certainty. Symptoms can vary across the whole spectrum of signs as the disease can affect just about anywhere in the body but very typical ones can include, lethargy, appetite loss, severe anaemia and skin lesions of various kinds. Of course these can also be due to a plethora of other complaints so are not in themselves any reason to panic but just be aware. Histio typically affects middle aged Bernese say 5-7 yrs but again this is not exclusively so and much younger affected ones, 18 months – 2 years, are occasionally heard of.
If your Bernese is unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with this exact complaint of Malignant Histiocytosis, remember there are various less severe and similar sounding related conditions, unfortunately you have very few options really. Sometimes massive steroid doses appear to slow things down a little but such respite is usually very short lived. Normally by the time you have noticed symptoms, been to the vet, gone through several days of maybe trying antibiotics, steroids etc before moving onto tests to confirm diagnosis your dog will probably be too ill to leave you with much option. Sometimes one hears of significant remissions but these are usually very short and their rarity leads to questions of the original diagnosis.
MH is such a devastating disease we need every owner to join in Health Surveys and schemes to analyse and tackle it. It won’t go away on its own but it WILL be beaten if we all get together and join in with initiatives. So PLEASE support all your breed health schemes even if they only ask for basic information, they still have a purpose. The only certain thing is that if we do nothing the situation will not improve but get worse. Unfortunately in the UK it is illegal to take blood samples from small animals if that sample is not for direct treatment of the animal itself so we cannot join in with International initiatives of this kind.
The following are links to various web sites across the world where you can find out more about this condition and those similar ones associated with it.