Leptospirosis is an infectious disease that is capable of causing kidney failure, liver damage, and possibly death if left untreated. It is caused by multiple serovars of a spirochete bacterium known as Leptospira, and is primarily transmitted by contact with or ingestion of the urine of wild animals infected with the disease. In our canine companions, this can occur through swimming in ponds, drinking from puddles that contain infected urine, or even when dogs lick their paws after coming in from a walk. Once an animal with the infection urinates, shedding leptospirosis, the bacteria can survive in the environment for months.
Leptospirosis is present throughout the United States, as well as other parts of the world. It is most commonly diagnosed between June and December, especially after heavy rain. Dogs that contract leptospirosis tend to develop a fever, drink and urinate excessively, become jaundiced, and have abdominal pain and vomiting. Veterinarians can diagnose this disease by testing a blood sample to look for the presence of antibodies to leptospirosis. Once diagnosed, leptospirosis is treated with antibiotics and intravenous fluids. The prognosis is guarded to poor if there has already been severe kidney and liver damage, but improves with early detection and treatment.
One worrisome characteristic of leptospirosis is that it is zoonotic, meaning that it can be transmitted to and cause disease in humans. In the veterinary world, this means donning full protective garb when caring for patients with leptospirosis, as well as thorough disinfection with bleach or iodine solutions. These are important steps in preventing transmission to ourselves and to our other patients. Dogs can continue to shed leptospira bacteria after being treated, so it is important to take preventive measures even after your dog has been discharged from the hospital. Frequent hand-washing and being scrupulous about cleaning areas contaminated with urine (while wearing gloves) are crucial in preventing spread of this disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that approximately 30% of human leptospirosis infections come from contact with infected dogs. Humans develop similar symptoms as dogs do, starting with a fever, and may not develop symptoms until up to four weeks after exposure.
As with many other aspects of veterinary care, prevention is key. A leptospirosis vaccine is available for dogs. This vaccine reduces the risk of developing disease, and can also decrease its severity. Dogs with a low risk of exposure do not require vaccination, but it is recommended for those who spend a lot of time outdoors, especially with access to standing water. This merits a discussion with your family veterinarian to determine if the leptospirosis vaccine is worthwhile for your dog.
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With warmest regards,
Your friends at Rhinebeck Animal Hospital