BAKERSFIELD -- Zoo animals, pets and animals in the wild contract coccidioidomycosis -- valley fever -- the same way people do, by inhaling spores from a fungus that thrives in soil, particularly in the Central Valley, Arizona and throughout the Southwest.
"We all get it from breathing the spores and not being coughed on by a sick person or dog," said Dr. Lisa Shubitz, a veterinarian and associate research professor at the University of Arizona.
Valley fever affects an estimated 150,000 people every year throughout the country and played a role in the deaths of more than 3,000 people between 1990 and 2008, according to one study. The toll the disease has taken on animals isn't known, but veterinarians in Bakersfield and Arizona said it's an illness they routinely see.
Valley fever has been found in sea otters and llamas, primates and cattle. Domestic animals are often treated with the same drugs that humans are prescribed.
Research that aims to save and improve human lives may also benefit animals. It also suggests that some animals become infected with valley fever but never become sick, similar to the many covert valley fever cases in humans.
Yet research funding for developing treatments and vaccines for people and animals remains limited.
"We only get one crack at (a study). We have to do it right the first time because there's very little money being put into the problem," Shubitz said.
Funding for animal research is so scarce that treatment for animals really depends on developments in treatments for humans, Shubitz said.
Dr. Demosthenes Pappagianis, a professor and valley fever researcher at the University of California at Davis, pointed out that medications are often tested on animals before they are tried on people.
"The veterinary side of things is absolutely vital for development of knowledge," Pappagianis said.
Just as a vaccine could fight valley fever in humans, veterinarians said a vaccine could be a huge help to combat the disease in animals.
"I think a vaccine would advance care of dogs more than any other single thing that we could do," Shubitz said.
First animal case: 1918
The first valley fever case discovered in an animal was uncovered in 1918 in a cow slaughtered in San Diego, according to a study published in the American Journal of Pathology in 1948.
Gradually the disease was identified in other animals.
Some animals appear to boast strong resistance to the disease, others do not. Alpacas and llamas are prone to valley fever but hard to treat because their digestive system doesn't absorb the medication well, Shubitz said.
Cattle are very resistant, but primates are highly susceptible, Pappagianis said.
The disease is usually treated with fluconazol, the same medication routinely used in people.
Veterinarians in Bakersfield and Arizona said they know to look for the illness in dogs because it's so prevalent in those areas. The symptoms often include lethargy, weight loss, fever and coughing. A dog may limp if the disease has spread to its bones.
As with people, the disease may be confined to the respiratory system or disseminated to other areas of the body. If valley fever is to blame for a dog's maladies, a chest X-ray usually reveals enlarged lymph nodes, said Dr. Roger Paulson, a veterinarian at Stine Veterinary Hospital in Bakersfield.
A blood test can confirm valley fever, he said.
But Dr. Thomas Willis, a veterinarian and owner of San Joaquin Veterinary Hospital in Bakersfield, said the tests aren't 100 percent accurate and at times generate false negatives. He recalled two cases in which the tests were negative, but the animals were still given antifungal treatment and it worked.