Just like humans, animals can get valley fever, and one North County pet hospital is treating pets for the disease on a nearly daily basis.
The fungal disease can be contracted by breathing spores that get spread by dust carrying the fungus.
Whether animals or people get it, valley fever isn’t contagious. The severity of the illness ranges from no obvious symptoms or minor conditions to serious sickness and even death.
Valley fever, also known as coccidioidomycosis or cocci for short, has killed six people in San Luis Obispo County this year, and the county Public Health Department has reported more than 200 cases in 2017.
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While the number of local pets with valley fever is unknown, veterinarians at the Atascadero Pet Hospital and Emergency Center are observing many cases of the disease in dogs, said Aaron Schechter, a vet at the facility.
Symptoms can include a fever, cough, lack of energy and appetite, lameness and lesions.
“We’re screening for it on a daily basis,” Schechter said. “Dogs are out in the dirt a lot where they can breathe in spores. Any time you have a wet year followed by a dry summer, like this year, it’s typically a worse year for valley fever.”
Out here in Arizona, we have one cat case for every 50 dog cases. I’m not sure if that translates to California. But dog cases tend to be much higher than cats.
Lisa Shubitz, Arizona’s Valley Fever Center for Excellence
Coast Veterinay Clinic in Morro Bay doesn’t have as many valley fever cases. Veterinarian Duane Stephens estimated he’s treated about a half-dozen per year, mostly dogs from the North County or from out of state, where the disease is more prevalent due to dusty conditions.
But Stephens said that he treated a dog in Los Osos with valley fever this year that hadn’t left the coast, and in the 1990s he recalled that sea otters in Morro Bay contracted valley fever.
“That was a weird year, and we believed that Santa Ana winds were blowing the spores out to sea,” Stephens said.
Mammals and reptiles
According to the University of Arizona’s Valley Fever Center for Excellence, both mammals and reptiles are susceptible to contracting valley fever, which is endemic in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, including San Luis Obispo County.
Birds don’t get it, and while horses can contract valley fever, they tend not to get sick, said Lisa Shubitz, a veterinarian with the University of Arizona center.
Dogs tend to sniff the dirt and stick their noses in rodent holes, among other outdoor curiosities, exposing them to spores.
“Out here in Arizona, we have one cat case for every 50 dog cases,” Shubitz said. “I’m not sure if that translates to California. But dog cases tend to be much higher than cats.”
Stephens said it’s likely because dogs are more exposed than cats, particularly indoor ones, though the spores can be spread easily in areas near construction, agriculture or road work that kick up dust.
In Arizona, an estimated 60,000 dogs contract valley fever each year, according to Shubitz.
One puppy’s case
Kay Paz said that she took her Irish wolfhound to several veterinary hospitals on the Central Coast before her puppy, Faith, was diagnosed at Atascadero Pet Hospital in the mid-2000s.
The dog was 4 months old when it started suffering with symptoms that included a lack of appetite, lethargy and a bump on the back of its head, Paz said.
“We took her to all sorts of different vets, and initially they thought she had bone cancer,” said Paz, who lived in King City at the time. “Our last ditch effort was to take her to Atascadero’s pet hospital. She was given an X-ray and a titer test (blood test looking for antibodies associated with valley fever) and she indeed had valley fever.”
With medication from a drug called Fluconazole, the wolfhound was nursed back to health and lived a normal lifespan for her breed, dying at the age of 9 in 2015.
Shubitz said that medical costs for the typical valley fever case in dogs is typically between $1,000 to $2,000 and treatment spans six months to a year.
It’s difficult to prevent pets from getting valley fever, Shubitz said, but she advises people to walk their pets in places where it isn’t dusty and to control the dust on property by using grass, gravel and other forms of man-made landscaping.
“Keeping a dog indoors more might prevent it,” Shubitz said. “The more times the dog is outdoors, the higher the risk factor. But other than those things, there’s not a lot they can do.”