Could your dog catch Valley Fever?
Unless you live in Arizona or California, you may not have even heard of it. But Valley Fever is common among people living in the Southwest desert.
But before we get to how it affects your dog … The Arizona Department of Health Services reported nearly 7,000 cases of it in 2017, with 725 hospitalizations and 48 deaths. In humans, Arizona accounts for about 2/3 of cases nationwide … though cases are greatly under-reported and are probably much higher.
The incidence of Valley Fever in California has also increased with about the same number of cases as Arizona. There are a few cases in Nevada, Utah and New Mexico … but only 276 were reported in 2018 in all 3 states, according to the CDC.
So … why all this talk about Valley Fever in people? What about dogs?
Can Dogs Get Valley Fever?
Well, dogs can get Valley Fever too, so I wanted you to know the areas where it’s common.
The University of Arizona Valley Fever Center for Excellence estimates that Valley Fever costs Arizona dog owners about $60 million a year. That’s partly because the conventional drugs are so expensive and treatment lasts a long time (more about that later).
Most people associate fungus with damp places … but this one happens in very dry climates. And it can be deadly.
So … what is Valley Fever? How can your dog get it? And, if he does, how do you treat it?
What Is Valley Fever In Dogs?
Valley Fever, also called coccidioidmycosis, is caused by Coccidia fungi called Coccidioides immitis and C. posadasi. The spores are especially fond of warm soils. That’s why it’s so prevalent in Arizona, California, and Mexico.
A heavy rain will bring the spores to the surface … and a good wind (dust storm) will disperse it everywhere.
These fungi are thermally dimorphic. This means that in the soil the fungus grows as a mycelium (the underground part of a mushroom). It then produces spores, which humans and animals inhale or ingest. Then, at the hosts’ body temperatures, it morphs into a yeast.
Now the organism is ready to spread to all parts of the body.
I Had It Myself!
I am very familiar with this process … because I got Valley Fever myself when I moved out to Arizona.
It got into several different places in my body …
- into my skin, creating a rash
- into my lungs, causing a cough
- into my spine, causing severe pain
- into my left eye, creating retinopathy
You can see that it’s a nasty, pervasive disease.
So, you’re probably wondering … are you at risk yourself if your dog gets Valley Fever?
Can Your Dog Give You Valley Fever?
It’s unlikely your dog can give you Valley Fever … or vice versa.
Valley Fever comes from inhaling the spores from the soil. So it’s a non-contagious disease. That means you can’t spread it by coughing, or through contact with an infected person or animal. You’d have to get it by inhaling the spores yourself (and that can definitely happen). But getting Valley Fever from your dog is one thing you don’t need to worry about.
Even so … how do you stop your dog catching it in the first place?
How To Prevent Valley Fever In Your Dog
If you live in areas where Valley Fever is common, you may want to take some steps to stop your dog picking up the spores. The spores live 12 inches deep in the ground. So treating the soil isn’t practical … and the chemicals could harm your dog.
Planting ground cover that reduces dust in your yard can be helpful. Use deep gravel or grass … or other plants that help control dust.
Try to avoid your dog doing activities that generate dust, such as …
- Sniffing in rodent holes
- Stirring up dust while he plays
And keep him indoors during a wind storm!
Not all dogs who come into contact with the spores get Valley Fever, though. About 70% of dogs control them quickly. When this happens, your dog won’t have symptoms. And he’ll probably be immune to the disease afterwards. (This is very similar to what happens in people.)
But what if your dog gets Valley Fever despite your efforts? How will you know?
What Are Symptoms Of Valley Fever In Dogs?
Your dog’s symptoms will depend on which organ systems become infected. The major areas where it accumulates are the lungs, bones, brain, eyes, and skin.
Lung infections may not cause any symptoms and may never be diagnosed. It’s a very sneaky organism.
A blood test (titer test) can reveal if there are antibodies against the Valley Fever organism. This may indicate if your dog has the infection. I’ll talk more about diagnosis in a bit.
Here is a list of the more common symptoms in dogs. These symptoms are the same for any species of fungus, so could indicate another fungal disease like blastomycosis or histoplasmosis as well.
- Bone pain or swelling
- Difficulty breathing
- Exercise intolerance
- Fatigue, lethargy
- General discomfort or uneasiness
- Joint pain, muscle pain
- Decreased appetite
- Rash, skin sores
- Shortness of breath
- Weight loss
- Behavior changes
- Vision loss
If you see any of these symptoms in your dog (or outdoor cat), then get to the vet right away.
Diagnosing Valley Fever In Your Dog
Your veterinarian will run some diagnostic tests. These may include:
- Blood work
- Fungal titers*
- Urinalysis (to evaluate the kidneys and metabolism)
- X-rays (chest and abdomen)
- Ultrasound of the abdomen or chest
- Skin wound biopsies (if your dog has lesions)
*As I mentioned earlier, titers measure the level of antibodies (fighting cells in the immune system) to a particular organism. A titer will show whether your dog’s been exposed to Valley Fever.
These factors will usually confirm a Valley Fever diagnosis:
- High titer levels
- Abnormalities on x-rays
- Clinical signs consistent with fungal infection
Occasionally a false negative titer may confuse the diagnosis.
Conventional Treatment Of Valley Fever In Dogs
If you have a conventional veterinarian, she’ll prescribe antifungal drugs such as …
- Fluconazole (Diflucan)
- Itraconazole (Sporanox)
- Ketoconazole (Nizoral)
These antifungal drugs work in similar ways to inhibit the growth of the fungus.
They’re often given for 6 to 12 months to resolve the infection. Treatment may be even longer in some cases where the fungus has spread to the bones, skin or internal organs. No wonder treating Valley Fever is expensive!
These drugs all have side effects, such as …
- Lack of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Liver problems (the drugs are metabolized by the liver)
- Birth defects in fetuses (so avoid using them in pregnant dogs).
Each drug also has its own set of other drawbacks.
Fluconazole Side Effects
- Kidney problems
- Thinning or dryness of coat, dandruff
- Excessive drinking and urination, or leaking urine while asleep
- High cost – in 2013, the generic drug price had a 5-fold price increase!
Itraconazole Side Effects
This drug may be more effective than fluconazole, but it has its own problems.
- Can increase liver enzymes, as it’s metabolized by the liver
- Less absorbable from the GI tract, so must be given with a meal
- Can cause skin issues ranging from mild ulcerations to severe abscesses or sloughing of hair and extensive dermatitis
- And it’s even more expensive than fluconazole!
Ketoconazole Side Effects
- Often needs to be given with vitamin C to help absorption
- Higher incidence of stomach and intestinal upset than fluconazole
- Causes infertility in male dogs (usually reversible once medication is stopped)
- Causes coat color to lighten, especially in red and gold dogs (normal color usually returns after stopping the drug)
So … be sure to consult a holistic veterinarian about treatment. Your holistic vet can help you assess your dog’s individual needs, and tell you about all the options available. With your holistic veterinarian’s help, you can choose the best treatment for your dog’s specific condition.
Managing Your Dog’s Valley Fever Naturally
There are three main goals in treating Valley Fever naturally:
- Boost the immune system
- Give antifungal foods and nutraceuticals
- Feed anti-inflammatory foods and nutraceuticals
Boost The Immune System
Since the antifungal medications don’t kill the yeast cells, a strong immune system is key … no matter what treatment option you choose. Your holistic vet should work with you to …
- Prescribe herbal and/or homeopathic remedies to stimulate your dog’s immune system
- Supplement the diet with foods and nutrients that support the immune cells
- Prescribe natural anti-inflammatories to reduce inflammation and pain associated with the infection
Whether or not you use conventional antifungal drugs (again, decide this with your holistic veterinarian’s help) … you’ll want to supplement your dog with natural antifungals.
Some effective natural antifungal ingredients are:
Caprylic Acid – kills yeast. It’s in MCT oil and coconut oil. MCT oil is best because it’s less likely to disrupt the gut microbiome as coconut oil can. Give about 1 Tbsp per meal for a medium sized dog.
Olive Leaf Extract and Grapefruit Seed Extract: give both orally, one capsule of each extract, twice a day for an average size dog; small breeds (and cats) can get one capsule a day.
Oil of Oregano: give a few drops on the food twice a day for small dogs, and double the dose for larger dogs.
Caution: Don’t put oil of oregano straight in the mouth – it must go in food, or you should dilute it with some olive oil or MCT oil, 1 tsp per 1 drop of oregano oil.
Foods That Can Help
Another antifungal approach is to kill the organism by destroying its cell wall. The organism has a cell wall that is made of chitin, similar to insects and some worms. There are certain common foods and nutraceuticals that have chitinase, an enzyme that “chews” up the chitin. This can help break up the cell wall of the yeast and actually kill the cell.
This would help eradicate the organism. In fact, the University of Arizona is currently researching a new medication (Nikkomycin Z) that is a chitinase. (Veterinarians there are also working on developing better diagnostic testing).
Here’s a list of foods that contain chitinase. It’s worth a try to feed these foods to your infected dog. My theory is that if the infected victim eats these foods … then the chitinase may attack the fungal cell wall and destroy the organism.
So try adding some of these foods to your dog’s meals and see if it helps. Keep in mind you’ll need to steam or purée veggies to make them digestible for your dog. And legumes need to be thoroughly cooked until soft.
Other complementary treatments that I may prescribe are:
- Acupuncture for pain and to boost the immune system
- Low level laser for skin lesions
How To Find A Holistic Vet
If your pet gets a fungal disease like Valley Fever, be sure to seek out a holistic veterinarian who’s familiar with these fungal infections. That’ll be the best person to help you with natural remedies.
You can find a holistic vet at these sites. Many will do phone consults if you can’t find one locally.
- The Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy (AVH): lists homeopathic vets but many practice other holistic modalities too.
- Pitcairn Institute of Veterinary Homeopathy (PIVH): vets who’ve completed homeopathy training with Dr Richard Pitcairn. Like the AVH list, includes vets who practice other holistic methods.
- American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA): includes all types of holistic veterinarians.
I hope your dog won’t get Valley Fever, but if he does, now you’re prepared and you’ll know what to do.