BY JASON STONE
GSN Staff Writer
East Valley residents who had enough of this year’s monsoon season can sure bet their dogs were sick of it more – literally.
The end of the monsoon season has brought a surge of valley fever cases to East Valley veterinarian offices.
Animal doctors are putting out alerts to dog owners to look for symptoms of the soil-dwelling fungus that’s prevalent in dusty regions of the southwestern U.S. and parts of Mexico and Central and South America.
It turns out the haboobs that roll across Arizona each summer may look impressive but can be harmful to dogs.
“The challenge is it’s different than any other disease,” said veterinarian Travis Wodiske with Family VetCare in the East Valley. “Things like parvo and heartworm are all preventable. With valley fever, there is nothing we can do to prevent it, which means we simply need to be aware of the symptoms.”
Coughing and limping are typically the first two signs that the fungus is taking hold, along with weight loss in some dogs.
“So many people are unaware of the symptoms of valley fever and how common it is,” Wodiske said. “If you can identify the symptoms early, it’s an easier treatment to fix, which means it’s less costly as well.”
Research into valley fever among animals is growing. Dogs make up a majority of cases, but cats, alpacas, llamas, horses and even dolphins have been diagnosed with the fungus.
Lisa Shubitz, a research scientist in the School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences at University of Arizona, said she treats about 25 dogs to every one cat suspected of valley fever.
Unfortunately for dogs in Arizona, that’s because just about all of them are exposed to the fungus. Once they’re exposed to inhaling the tiny seeds or spores, the fungus transforms into spherules, which eventually burst. That begins a cycle where new spherules will develop in a dog’s lungs.
High cost of treatment
The good news is about 70 percent of dogs can inhale valley fever spores and naturally fight them with their own immune systems. The bad news is the other 30 percent will attain valley fever and will need to be treated with antifungal medication twice a day.
If caught early, most dogs have a six- to 12-month recuperation period. But some dogs may need to take medication for the rest of their lives.
Although there’s no cure for valley fever, the fungus is rarely deadly. It can, however, have a drastic effect on a dog’s quality of life and their owner’s pocketbook.
The Valley Fever Center for Excellence estimates the fungus costs Arizona dog owners a total of $60 million per year. Fluconazole, the medication used to treat it in pets, isn’t cheap. For smaller dogs, it can cost about $50 a month, but for the big dogs, it can blow past $150 a month.
Plus, the high cost for valley fever blood tests – average around $200 – causes some infected pet owners to never have their furry friends tested.
“Most can’t afford that,” Shubitz said. “Dogs get abandoned because of this disease, or people throw them out on the street.”
Finding a cure
Since 1996, Shubitz has been working with a team at U of A that’s trying to find a cure for the disease, which is officially known as coccidioidomycosis. The group hopes to have a vaccine in place for dogs by 2021.
The work of Shubitz, under noted researcher John Galgiani, is the next generation of valley fever work dating back two centuries.
Valley fever was first discovered in humans in Argentina in 1892, but it became widespread in the early 20th century when numerous cases in California’s Central Valley led doctors to call it San Joaquin Valley Fever.
Arizona and other parts of the U.S. became breeding grounds for the fungus in the 1940s when people migrated from the Midwest during the “Dust Bowl” days.
As for the fungus in animals, an eminent human pulmonologist in the 1940s, Dr. O.J. Farness, was the first to detect valley fever in his own dog.
But until the late 1960s or early 1970s, veterinarians weren’t able to detect the fungus in live dogs, only in necropsy tests. Since then, the prevalence of X-rays and blood tests has made the detection a little easier – albeit still costly.
Since those early days of detection, Shubitz said the range of the disease is slowly growing across the continent. Maricopa, Pinal and Cochise counties dominate the cases in Arizona. Nearby states such as California, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas and Utah are also dealing with reported infections.
The actual numbers are hard to collect, however, since the testing is so inconsistent with the timing of the tests and methods used. The Center for Disease Control’s most recent numbers for 2016 showed more than 6,100 new cases in Arizona that year.
That outpaces the rate for human contraction of the fungus. Arizona residents are in ground zero for the fungus, but it’s still rare overall. The Center for Disease Control reports fewer than 200,000 people get it each year in the entire U.S.
While waiting for a cure, dog owners are turning to alternative means to help treat their animals and insurance to help pay for it.
Supplemental treatments, including cough suppressants and even CBD oil, have been documented to help dogs with the symptoms of valley fever.
CBD oil, or cannabidiol, is extracted from hemp plants and is used to reduce pain and inflammation. It’s typically associated with medical marijuana treatment but has no psychoactive ingredients and can be purchased at drug stores and smoke shops.
As for helping with the overall cost of treatment, pet health insurance plans are helping defray the cost of treatment for some dog owners. Shubitz said she used to consider pet health plans a waste of money for young, healthy dogs. But a lifetime of valley fever treatment could pay off in the end.
“I have one patient who without health insurance probably would have long ago passed away because of a lack of options and high cost of treatment,” Shubitz said. “It’s kind of a catastrophic disease if you’re going to be on treatment for at least a year and maybe forever.”
The costs of treating valley fever could very well even be extending to area zoos.
That became a controversial factor in this year’s death of one of two dolphins at the Dolphinaris Arizona park in Scottsdale.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listed the cause of death to the 10-year-old bottlenose dolphin as valley fever. Officials at the facility, however, are attributing Alia’s death to an acute bacterial infection called septicemia.
Animal activists said the park is misleading the public about the dolphin’s death. Stephanie Nichols-Young of the Animal Defense League of Arizona told the Arizona Republic earlier this year that Arizona’s high rate of Valley Fever cases was one of the reasons the group protested dolphins moving to the Scottsdale park last year.
Shubitz said stories like the Dolphinaris incident are causing zoos across the Southwest to budget money for valley fever cases for their animals.
“It’s a disease that I never learned about in school,” Shubitz said. “I never had any animals with valley fever until I started this research. Until there’s a vaccine, it’s all about educating and teaching people about the disease.”