This month I’ve decided to dedicate my blog to a disease that is prevalent during late summer and fall. The disease is not only very dangerous for our dogs, but also for their humans as it can be passed from one to the other. Leptospirosis is the topic of this month’s blog.

You may have heard of leptospirosis before as it is something that we discuss constantly at our hospital. It is a bacterial disease which we have the ability to vaccinate against and so we are always talking to our clients about whether or not their pets may be at risk of contracting the disease. Leptospirosis (or lepto as it’s commonly called) is prevalent in both rural and suburban environments. Pets contract it by coming into contact with contaminated animal tissues, organs and urine. This may sound strange but when you consider that animals urinate on just about everything and have a tendency to not think twice about drinking out of a puddle or licking/eating things that smell “interesting” you begin to realize that their risk factors can actually be quite high just by being out and about. The infected tissue and secretions do not necessarily have to be canine, they can come from a number of types of wildlife, like raccoons, that can also carry this disease.

Once an animal is exposed to leptospira (the dangerous bacteria) the organisms spread through their bloodstream causing a variety of general symptoms like fever, joint pain and loss of appetite. This may last up to a week while the leptospira find and settle into the kidneys where they reproduce leading to severe inflammation of the kidneys and, eventually, kidney failure.  There are many strains of leptospirosis and, depending on the type, organs like the liver will also shut down.   As you can imagine, with contamination of water being the primary mode of contraction, this disease is considered globally to be life-threatening and has dramatic effects on human populations in countries where access to clean drinking water is a challenge.

Patients with lepto usually present initially with fever, depression, loss of appetite, joint pain and nausea. They then begin drinking (and therefore urinating) excessively, become jaundiced and bleed excessively (due to a low platelet count their blood cannot clot properly). 90% of leptospirosis patients go into acute kidney failure with 10-20% suffering from liver failure as well.  Animals that have recovered will sometimes shed the bacteria through their urine for months. For this reason, special precautions must be taken when caring for a leptospirosis positive patient in order to not contract the disease yourself. We tend to see younger animals become more severely affected than older animals and larger breeds (especially German Shepherds) more likely to contract (although that could just be because they are more exposed to the risks).

Dogs with leptospirosis are treated with antibiotics and given supportive care to control and treat the symptoms and secondary issues like dehydration. They are usually hospitalized so that they can be closely monitored and treated – leptospirosis can be deadly if not managed and it is important to try and minimize any long term organ damage.

Of course, the moral of this story is about minimizing risk. If you believe your dog is at risk of exposure – possibly coming into contact with contaminated water, going to areas that have rain or snow runoff, drinking from puddles, getting into “gross things” – then vaccinating should be a top priority. While there are several different vaccines to choose from, we use a vaccine that protects against the more common types of lepto affecting dogs. It is a vaccine that requires a booster initially (2 initial vaccines given 3-6 weeks apart) and then is given annually. To reduce the risk of having a vaccine reaction (small breed dogs and puppies appear to be at greatest risk anecdotally) we recommend giving the lepto vaccine at 12 weeks and booster at 16 weeks. It’s never too late to start and so, at any point in time, if you feel your dog is at risk please let us know so that we can come up with a plan that suits your pet and their lifestyle!

While they may have “nine lives,” cats don’t need to worry about leptospirosis. This is a disease for dog owners to worry about – and a disease for humans to be very aware of. As always, the team at Westway would be happy to talk to you about Leptospirosis and how it may be affecting your pet. Please contact us with any questions you may have.