Thursday, August 16, 2012

Canine Valley Fever Warning

I, for one, do not like long posts on any blog, so I apologize for this one.  Nor do I appreciate personal commentary.  But as you begin to read this posting, I hope you'll please bear with both the length and personal note as it does contain a strong message that we all need to be aware of.  Thank you in advance for your patience.

Anyone who has lived in the Valley of the Sun for any length of time, knows about Valley Fever.  Even our winter visitors are familiar with this malay.  As humans, we can reason when we don't feel well or when we feel "off" and head to the doctor's office.  Unfortunately, though, for our canine companions, life isn't so easy.  While the symptoms for Valley Fever are usually the same as in humans, they aren't able to tell their human parents how they feel.  Because of this, the disease is allowed to progress for months, or longer, undetected.  Such is the case with my buddy, Keiko.

Keiko is my beautiful Chinese Shar-Pei and, other than my husband and daughter, is the love of my life.  At the ripe old age of 6-1/2, he had the energy of a 6 month old, but then something tragic happened.  Within just a few months time, he seemed to lose that energy and eagerness towards life and began to mope and lay around for hours on end.  Getting up seemed to be an effort.  During our regular morning walks, what used to be a fun time, he began to stop then turn towards home right away.  Knowing that something just wasn't "right", we took him to the doctor for a checkup.  With the exception of his lack of energy, though, everything else checked out fine.  That was in May.

Over the next few months, we continued the walks and he continued to show less and less interest.  While our walks had lasted 20 to 30 minutes only a few months before, now we were lucky if we made 5 minutes.  He stopped eating and began to lose weight.  At every turn, he was vomiting or had diarrhea.  Several more trips to the doctor only came back with the results of a gastrol infection.  Antibiotics were prescribed and he seemed to be on the mend.

But within a short time, the bottom fell out of my world.  Keiko again stopped eating, dropped all the weight he'd gained back after the antibiotics and continued dropping weight.  He was literally down to skin and bones.  What had started as a healthy, 55-pound animal now looked like one of those neglected and starving animals we all see on the evening news.  His once gorgeous brown eyes clouded over, he made no effort at all to get up from the floor, and even stopped eating completely.  His usually calm and pleasant personality disappeared, and he began growling and snapping at those around him, including his parents.  Then last Wednesday morning, I found him laying on the floor, breathing so shallow I thought he'd stopped breathing at all.

Without an appointment, Keiko and I made what I thought would surely be our last trip to the doctor's office.  They were able to get him in for another exam immediately, did several more tests, gave him injections for this and that, and told me to take him home and call the next day for the test results.  I thought the trip to the doctor's office was difficult, but the trip home was so much worse.  I was convinced at that point  that I would be saying my final good-nights that evening at bedtime.

The next morning, after an almost sleepless night, when Keiko woke up and ate a bite or two of breakfast, my spirits rose and I convinced myself that he was finally on the road to good health.  At least, that is, until I made the call to the doctor's office a few hours later and heard the test results . . . Valley Fever.  While the diagnosis in itself was scary and brought on tears, it was also good news because now we knew what treatment to go with and the doctor was able to prescribe medication to treat this mysterious disease.  Our hopes were up.  That is until the next evening.

The following morning after Keiko's first dose of his new medication, he began tripping and stumbling as he walked through the house.  Even when he stumbled and fell during our morning walk, we thought it was his continued weakness and weren't overly concerned, convinced it would pass once the medication took hold.  Little did we know then what we know now.  It wasn't until that evening, that the panic set in . . . once again.

After a trip into the backyard, Keiko fell to the grass, rolled onto his back, and began flailing his legs in the air as though doing the backstroke in the swimming pool.  After what seemed an eternity, but in actuality was only about 20-30 seconds, he was able to regain his footing and stand up.  Though he was trembling and looking very confused, he shook his head a few times, gave me a love, and made his way to the door to go back into the house.  It was then that I recognized that he'd had a seizure.  Little did I know then that it wasn't to be his last.

About an hour later, while trying to make his way to his water bowl, Keiko collapsed to the floor, went stiff as a board and catatonic.  His breathing stopped completely, his tongue hung out the side of his mouth, and his eyes went wide.  He stayed this way for 20-30 seconds and my sense of hopelessness and helplessness went through the roof.

When I called the doctor the next morning and told him of the onset of seizures, he explained that Keiko was worse than any of us had realized.  Apparently, there are two levels of Valley Fever, and Keiko was in the most advanced.  Unfortunately, the difference in the two levels does not show in a blood test, only that Valley Fever does or does not exist.  The doctor immediately prescribed anti-seizure medication for Keiko, in addition to the medication he'd already prescribed for the Valley Fever, so our fingers are crossed.

It won't be an easy road ahead for Keiko or our family.  He will need to be retested in 4 months with another Valley Fever blood test, and it will be decided then whether to continue with this current course of treatment or if it will be necessary to make a change.  At the very least, it's predicted that he will need to stay on some sort of treatment for at least 6-12 months to be sure we've conquered the disease.  He'll also need to stay on the anti-seizure medication treatment for at least 1 year.  Worse case senerio with both treatments, he will have to continue taking medication for the rest of his life.  Our hopes, of course, are for the shorter times, but are prepared for the longer ones if necessary to help Keiko regain his health.

Valley Fever is a potentially dangerous and fatal fungal disease in animals, particularly dogs, and develops after a dog inhales infectious spores of the Coccidioides immitis fungus.  This fungus, or organism, thrives in hot, arid areas of the southwestern United States, such as Arizona, in undisturbed soils and can be distrubuted by wind, construction, or dogs digging or poking their noses into dirt.  The disease is not contagious and cannot be transmitted from one being to another.  Early symptoms may commonly include:
  • coughing
  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • rapid, shallow breathing
  • fever
  • weight loss
  • weakness
  • lack of appetite
  • lack of energy or lethargy
Sometimes, as in Keiko's case, a dog will not have any signs such as coughing, but will only develop symptoms of the advanced stages of Valley Fever.

As the disease progresses undetected, dogs can develop pneumonia that may be visible on x-rays.  When the disease is left untreated beyond the early symptoms, or becomes disseminated (spreads beyond the lungs), the most common symptoms to watch for are:
  • lameness or swelling of limbs
  • back or neck pain, with or without weakness or paralysis
  • seizures and other forms of brain swelling
  • fevers unresponsive to antibiotics
  • swollen lymph nodes under the chin, in front of the shoulder blades, or behind the stifles
  • swollen or enlarged joints
  • vision abnormalities or vision loss
  • non-healing skin ulcerations or draining tracts that ooze fluid
  • eye inflammation with pain or cloudiness
  • swollen testicles (in male dogs)
  • unexpected heart failure in young dogs
Unfortunately, very few of the signs of Valley Fever are specific to this disease alone, so your veterinarian will need to do tests to determine that your dog's illness is truly Valley Fever and to rule out other causes.

If you would like to learn more about Valley Fever or it's symptoms, I recommend that you visit the website for the Valley Fever Center for Excellence.  Other good sources of information on this possibly deadly disease can be found at PetWave or Greenway Pet Clinic in Tucson.  At the very least, if you have an animal that shows any of the symptoms listed above, and you suspect Valley Fever, contact your veterinarian and request a blood test immediately.

Again, I apologize for the lengthiness of this posting, but I wouldn't wish what our family has gone through these past months on anyone.

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  1. Boy what an ordeal! I certainly understand about the love you can have for your pet and how heartbroken you can be when you see them sick. I am happy that you finally got a diagnosis and that Keiko continues to get better. I am thinking good thoughts for him and you! Take care.

  2. How sad. I hope your beloved pet is on the mend and makes a full recovery.

  3. Charmaine, Keiko could not have a better buddy, I wish him strength to get better soon. Sincerely, Sofia