Leptospirosis: it’s as scary as it sounds

Leptospirosis (“lepto”) is a contagious bacterial disease that dogs can acquire through bodily fluids of other dogs or mammals (livestock, deer, raccoons, opossums, skunks, rodents). Water contaminated with urine is a common source; although sidewalks with rodent urine are becoming the most prevalent source of infection. Lepto bacteria can survive for long periods of time in wet soil, infected urine, and water. Natural disasters such as floods can contribute to increased outbreaks. A dog can become infected by drinking, swimming in, or walking through contaminated water or soil, then bacteria quickly spread through the blood stream, causing fever, painful joints, and general crummy feeling. The infection can settle in organs, causing liver and/or kidney failure that is often difficult and expensive to attempt to treat. Animals that recover can shed the bacteria into the environment for months and possibly years afterwards, where the bacteria can remain for additional weeks to months infecting other animals and even humans!

Is this a problem in the Ozarks?
Yes, we have diagnosed confirmed cases of leptospirosis at our clinic.

Can cats catch leptospirosis?

While they are potentially at risk, cats appear to have natural resistance to this disease.

Can humans get leptospirosis?
Yes! According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1/3 of human cases are acquired from an infected dog, and up to 200 cases are confirmed every year in the US. Severe illness can occur. Humans can reduce their risk of disease by vaccinating their dogs and livestock; avoiding potentially contaminated water, especially if it is stagnant; practicing good sanitation, including hand washing after handling anything potentially contaminated with pet urine; wearing protective clothing if exposure to wildlife or standing water.

What are the symptoms of leptospirosis in dogs?
Typical symptoms are increased thirst 1-2 weeks following unexplained fever. Other symptoms can be vague and flu-like, such as lethargy, depression, anorexia, painful/stiff joints, weakness, nausea/vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice (yellowing of the gums and whites of the eyes), and bleeding. Kidney failure occurs in 90% of infected dogs, and 20% experience liver failure. Some dogs have no symptoms at all (asymptomatic carriers).

How is leptospirosis diagnosed?
Diagnosis is challenging because symptoms are often vague, and testing can be complicated and difficult to interpret. Often a combination of blood and urine tests are needed. Kidney biopsy is sometimes needed for diagnosis. Full blood work is needed to assess the full extent of damage to kidneys, liver, or platelets. The diagnostic work-up can be expensive and frustrating.

How is leptospirosis treated?
Aggressive supportive care (hospitalization, IV fluids, antibiotics) can sometimes save leptospirosis patients; although many are left with lifelong kidney disease after recovery. In general, a leptospirosis diagnosis means a guarded prognosis for survival.

How can we protect our dogs?
Vaccines are available for multiple strains of leptospirosis in dogs. National standards recommended using a vaccine that covers 4 most common strains. This vaccine is often included with the core distemper/parvo vaccine (it’s the L in DHLPP). Historically, lepto vaccines were associated with a higher incidence of allergic reactions (hives, facial swelling), but technology has improved, and we see very few reactions with the brands of vaccines we use for our patients (at our clinic, we see 1 or fewer vaccine reactions per year total from all vaccines). The vaccine we use is much more convenient, affordable, and safe that the disease it prevents.

Other preventative measures include removing rodents/other mammals from the environment and not allowing access to standing water.

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