Valley fever not just a human problem

July 03, 2013

When Suzie Hatch comes home from work, she is greeted by powerful, predictable barks.

basset hound Kindred the Basset Hound survived Valley fever a few years back -- but only after his owner, Suzie Hatch, lost a previous dog to the illness. (Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)

But she does not mind. For a dog lover afraid of Valley fever, that is a beautiful sound. No rasping, no coughing.

Cosette the basset hound has never had the airborne disease Valley fever, but her sister, Camille, was not  so lucky. It was about eight years ago when Camille started acting withdrawn and lethargic.

“We didn’t know what it was, and so she pretty much didn’t have a very good life for about a year,” Hatch said, petting Cosette. “She had a lot of problems. She lost weight, huge amounts of weight.”

Hatch went to several veterinarians but got no answers. A native, she already knew about Valley fever, but she had no idea the airborne, fungal disease could infect dogs. Dry coughs are common with Valley fever, and there is a chance that might have tipped off a vet, but Camille did not have one.

So, she was never tested, and things continued downhill. Hatch remembers Camille’s last day. She was so weak, she could not make it out the doggie door. She messed in the house and looked back at Hatch helplessly, then Camille had what looked like a stroke. 

“At that point, she was paralyzed. She couldn’t walk. Her back legs were done, gone,” Hatch said. “So, I called the kids and told them to come home, and we decided that it was her time. She couldn’t live a good quality of life anymore. So we had her put to sleep.”

Hatch had no idea what had happened until another dog of hers, Kindred, started showing the same symptoms. This time, a new vet recommended a test for a Valley fever. It came back positive, but thanks to medication, Kindred was able to beat it.

And that is actually typical of Valley fever these days, explained Dr. Melana Martens, who has been a Phoenix vet for nearly 10 years. When she first arrived from Oklahoma, she had never heard about Valley fever.

Now, she sees it almost weekly. The disease affects parts of the Southwest and northern Mexico. It lives in the soil but can become airborne and inhaled by people or pets. It can set up camp in the lungs or move just about anywhere in the body, but Martens stresses a Valley fever diagnosis for a dog is not always as bad as it sounds.

Colette and Camille Camille (left) died of Valley fever eight years ago. At the time, her owner had no idea what was wrong -- and neither did vets. These days, vets commonly test for the disease, and Hatch always looks for symptoms in her dogs. Camille's sister, Cosette (right), has never developed Valley fever, but also never fully recovered from Camille's death. Hatch says Cosette hasn't played with a toy since her sister died. (Photo courtesy of Suzie Hatch)

“Most of the time we’re almost relieved, because it is in a list of possible diseases, and this one is treatable,” she explained.

Martens estimates that 90 percent of her canine patients make it through the disease just fine, if they catch it early and take anti-fungal medications. But for a small percentage of affected dogs, beating Valley fever requires extreme measures.

Dr. Lisa Shubitz has turned her career toward studying them. The vet said sometimes it is hard to know why some dogs make it and some do not.

“I mean luck seems to be, I don’t know, part of it, at the end,” Shubitz said.

But new drugs could help. Shubitz is a research professor with the University of Arizona. Years ago, her dog Arrow’s severe case of Valley fever led to a breakthrough.

Arrow, a whippet, was part of research trial using the drug Abelset. Shubitz said for stubborn cases, it can be a life saver, if you are willing to shell out between $5,000 to $8,000 for a round of injections.

And while “a lot of people are willing to,” Shubitz said, “not all of them are able to.”

The problems with researching the disease go even deeper. Simply, there is little money out there to do it for dogs.  

“And pharmaceutical companies would really rather make drugs for chronic human diseases than make antibiotics that cure any kind of an infectious disease for any species,” Shubitz explained, matter-of-factly.

So, she makes the best Valley fever best treatment decisions she can with a limited amount of information. And that is pretty much how it is for anyone who owns a dog in the Southwest.


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