A month ago, Wolfie started acting strange. The 3-year-old dog developed a persistent, hacking cough and stopped eating. When her Simi Valley family took her to a nearby clinic, a veterinarian determined that the petite brown-haired shepherd mix had valley fever.
The outbreak of valley fever in the eastern part of Ventura County hasn't been restricted to the human population. At least 22 dogs have been infected by the respiratory illness since January and vets across the county are keeping a wary eye out for additional cases.
"As of this point, there were 16 lab-confirmed cases in dogs in the Simi Valley area and six in the Thousand Oaks area, and these numbers can always change," said Dr. Richard Spiegel, a veterinarian for the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control.
Spiegel recently spent two weeks in Ventura County studying cases of valley fever in dogs and humans to determine what has caused the surge in infection.
Since the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake, at least 170 people have contracted the illness. A Simi Valley man died from valley fever in early March. Medical experts speculate that the quake may have kicked up dust carrying the virus.
Medical authorities have noted that the illness occasionally crops up in such creatures as cats, cattle, sheep, pigs and horses. But dogs are more susceptible, Spiegel said.
Simi Valley veterinarian Dr. John Anderson, a former CDC physician who specializes in fungal illnesses, said dogs are especially at risk because they always have their noses in the dirt.
"I have found that the hunting dog, the sniffing dog, is more prone," Anderson said.
It was to Anderson's Simi Valley office that Ruth Morrill brought her dog, Wolfie, for treatment last month.
"She was real listless and having trouble breathing," Morrill said. "I thought she might have some sort of flu."
A blood test determined that the dog had valley fever, which surprised Wolfie's owner. "I thought they were joking," Morrill said.
Wolfie's symptoms were typical of a valley fever-infected canine: a dry, hacking cough, fever, lethargy and loss of appetite.
Until now, veterinarians had diagnosed few dogs as having valley fever.
"I've been here since 1984, I've seen probably four total," said Dr. Karen Martin, a veterinarian at the Conejo Valley Veterinary Clinic. The clinic has treated three dogs with valley fever since the quake.
Dr. Steve Watase, a veterinarian the Anza Animal Clinic in Westlake, is treating a dog that was infected with valley fever about a year ago.
"I've been here in Westlake for a year, Ventura for three years, Agoura a year before that and that's the first case I've seen," Watase said. But until now, he said, vets in Ventura County typically don't look for valley fever in dogs.
Martin expects to see such cases increase in the coming months.
"Certainly, we are looking more for it," she said. "When you see pneumonia, the first thing you think of is running a fungal screen."
Public-health officials are concerned that the heightened medical attention to the disease will drive up the number of reported cases and create unnecessary public concern.
"They're going to have a higher number of cases, but what does it mean? Nobody knows," said Dr. Shirley Fannin, director of the Los Angeles County Health Department. "It's their general impression, it's their gut feeling and they may be right, but they don't have any basis for saying so."
Fannin said the increase in valley fever cases has more to do with an increase in testing than an epidemic created by the earthquake.
"You stir up the community so everybody who has had a cough in the last two months goes out and gets tested," she said. Humans and dogs can have valley fever and not know it because symptoms don't always develop, she said.
But Anderson said there's no harm in being tested.
Wolfie's owners are relieved that their dog was diagnosed before the illness could mature. Antibiotics and the expensive drug used to treat valley fever have eased Wolfie's discomfort, Morrill said.
"She's almost back to normal now," she said.
One of the most uncomfortable aspects of the illness is the cost of treatment for pet owners.
"I think the biggest problem is dogs don't have Medicare and it's very expensive to treat," Watase said. A blood test, which is the only way to determine if a dog has valley fever, runs between $35 and $70, he said.
But the most expensive aspect of treatment is medication, Anderson said. Ketoconazole, an anti-fungal drug used to treat a wide spectrum of human illnesses, is prescribed to treat dogs with the virus. Individual pills cost about $4, and the prescribed treatment is usually two pills a day, Anderson said, depending on the dog's weight.
"It was a real shock to find it was $95 for 30 pills," Morrill said.
Anderson said treatment for an infected dog could run from six months to a year.