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I caught a life-threatening fungal infection and it’s even more dangerous for pets

The week after returning home from a three-day backpacking trip into the Grand Canyon, I found myself lying in bed throughout the afternoons with no desire or energy to move. I didn’t feel sick, and thought maybe hiking almost 40 miles the weekend before and splashing in the cool waters of Havasupai had perhaps worn me out far more than I anticipated. Still, one day for recovery? Maybe, but an entire week of weakness and exhaustion didn’t make sense, especially for a physically active individual.

The lethargy would persist and worsen over the coming weeks, and I was losing weight fast, 12 pounds overall. I felt like Christian Bale preparing for his role in The Machinist. A mild sore throat made me think strep or mono, but tests for both returned negative. By the third week, I decided I would just physically push myself and hope that it would break my lack of energy. So I played hockey Saturday night and mountain biked 17 miles the next day. I was sure this boost in activity would break the vicious cycle of complete loss of energy, but I could not have been more wrong. I started to panic the following morning when I immediately dropped into a crippled and delirious state, spiking a fever of 102.4. What could possibly be causing this?

By the fourth of July, five weeks of early-morning energy drinks, evening fevers and several additional misdiagnoses — bronchitis, walking pneumonia — finally led to a suggestion by a friend working at the Centers for Disease Control: valley fever. Bingo.

Growing up in Arizona, I knew about valley fever. It was always something we heard about, but few people are actually aware of its prevalence in the valley. What I didn’t know was just how dangerous it can be for animals.

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So, what is it?

Valley fever is a common fungal disease in Arizona and parts of the Southwest (California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Texas), and has recently been discovered in the Pacific Northwest, according to the CDC. The Coccidioides (Cocci for short) is a fungal spore that is typically inhaled. Within a week of breathing in the nasty little spore, symptoms may arise with varying severity between individuals. Although humans are susceptible, the most common occurrence of this fungal infection is in pets, particularly dogs. The fact that it is contracted just by breathing outdoors is just slightly terrifying.

What are the symptoms, and how do I know if my pet has it?

“Lethargy, weight loss, limping and in some cases, the loss of their use of legs,” Kim Sasso, director of Foster and Medical at Forever Loved, describes the symptoms of VF cases in dogs. Symptoms are similar to those in humans, but unlike humans, dogs are always sniffing in the dirt where the fungal spore is found, and as a result are more likely to be infected.

Image: Kim Sasso

“This is Charlie, an owner turn-in with a bad case of VF,” Kim says of a black Chihuahua bundled in a blanket asleep. “We just got him a week ago, test came back yesterday. He is on treatment now.”

“VF is the most prevalent of the fungal diseases in pets and can affect all dogs no matter indoors or out, urban or rural,” Brett the Vet from the Arizona Animal Hospital explains. “Most other infectious fungal diseases are common in outdoor (hunting) dogs, and are much less a concern to the general pet population. Most of these are restricted to humid, wet environments in the Midwest and upper Midwest, but can be sporadic around the country. They can be mildly contagious in certain instances.”

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To diagnose valley fever and other fungal infections, Brett the Vet says, “Currently, there are only clinical signs and a blood test that screens the pet’s own immune system.” He warns it is not always 100 percent accurate. “We will also take X-rays of your pet’s lungs or bones to look for lesions consistent with VF.”

How can it be treated and prevented?

Valley fever, as well as other fungal diseases, is treated with anti-fungal drugs like Fluconazole. “Proper Fluconazole medication and dosing generally leads to full recoveries in four to eight months unless the patient has severe VF disease,” says Brett the Vet.

As for me, the full spectrum of symptoms lasted for over three months, making work and recreation a challenge. I was finally prescribed Fluconazole another three weeks after my diagnosis, and six months total would pass before my blood screened negative for Cocci antibodies.

“Education is key. Tell your veterinarian where you have traveled with your pet.”  Every year, visitors travel to Arizona with their pets and return home sick with VF. “This makes diagnosis difficult, as healthcare professionals are not looking for [fungal] diseases and [the symptoms] can mimic other diseases,” according to Brett the Vet.

Fortunately, VF and other fungal infections are not contagious between humans or animals. Unfortunately, preventing an infection is difficult, especially if one lives in a dusty environment. Better diagnostic tools are moving into trials, as well as potentially more effective treatments. However, research and education funding for this sometimes debilitating disease is scarce. Until then, for humans and dogs alike, knowledge is the best form of prevention.

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