An estimated 6 percent of dogs in Pima, Pinal and Maricopa counties become sick with valley fever every year, costing Arizona dog owners more than a million dollars a year in diagnosis and treatment, according to UA research.
The dollar amount is likely to go up, since fluconazole, a drug commonly prescribed to treat valley fever in dogs, has seen a recent price hike at most pharmacies.
Dr. Beth Neuman, a veterinarian at Twin Peaks Veterinary Center, thinks the prices are rising because awareness and demand have gone up. At the same time, a couple of manufacturers shut down production. “I think they saw a potential for making money,” she says.
“I have two dogs on valley fever meds,” says Cindy Hefley, a dog owner and a volunteer with Pima Animal Care Center. “So when it went from $15 a month to $127 the next month, I about fell over.”
People are also susceptible to valley fever, a regional fungal disease that’s most common in the Arizona and California deserts. But dogs are particularly vulnerable because the disease is spread through spores in soil and dust, and dogs are out snuffling in the dirt.
“The dogs need treatment for months to years,” notes Dr. Lisa Shubitz, associate research professor at the University of Arizona Valley Fever Center for Excellence. “Some dogs need treatment for life, and relapse of the disease is relatively common, up to 30 percent of cases.
“Almost no one can afford that long term,” she says.
But with a little legwork, you’ll find there are still a couple of places selling fluconazole at lower prices — “for now,” they say. My spot check of current prices in Tucson is on page D9 — and there’s a stunning range in prices for the medicine, from about $32 for a month’s supply to more than $500.
And Shubitz says an alternative to generic fluconazole is fluconazole from compounding pharmacies. “It’s not going to carry the very high price tag of the generic drug right now.”
But, she emphasizes, dog owners should discuss the risks and benefits of using compounded medication in place of generic with the dog’s veterinarian.
I called a couple of compounding pharmacies. The prices are lower than at most of the other pharmacies around town. But the strength of the tablets is different because they are not allowed to sell the same strength as the manufacturer.
For example, I called Pet Health Pharmacy, asking about a prescription for 60 200-milligram pills, which is good for one month. Pet Health Pharmacy’s tablets come in 205 mg, rather than 200. The price is $43.16 plus shipping.
It’s the second least expensive option, next to Bashas’ pharmacy, out of the places I called.
The price increase is a cause for concern among local shelter workers, who worry people will start dumping their pets because they can’t afford the medication, Hefley says.
“As far as people giving up dogs, yes, it is happening some now, and it will continue to get worse if prices continue to rise,” says Michael N. Santo, founder and president of All-American Bully Buddies Rescue and a board member of No Kill Pima County.
Santo started looking into the price hike when the vet his shelter uses, Dr. Neuman, had multiple people calling to euthanize their dogs rather than see them suffer the symptoms and death from valley fever because they could not afford the testing and meds needed regularly.
“I vowed to use my knowledge and connections,” Santos says, “to help save those that may otherwise be killed, by providing the best deals I knew of for others to share.”
Neuman says there are alternatives to euthanasia. “I’ve seen valley fever kill a couple of dogs, but there are alternatives. If the dog isn’t symptomatic, we’ll drop the dose in half to make it more affordable.”
Some patients have gone to Sonora to get prescriptions filled for about $11, she says, adding, “That trip to Mexico isn’t too bad.”
The increased price has made the Humane Society of Southern Arizona change how much medication it sends home with dogs with valley fever.
“We used to send home a 30-day supply,” says spokeswoman Samantha Esquivel. “But now it turns out we won’t be able to do it for that long. ... Instead, they’ll go home with a week’s worth because of the price.”
Santo frequently calls around to find out what prices are on the drug, and posts the information on his rescue group’s Facebook page — www.facebook.com/ABBRescue . He wants to show people that despite the price hike, the medicine is still available at a good price at select places.
“I do this to save the dogs,” Santo says. “These dogs are our family.”