What’s lurking in that pond water? Fish, bugs, and…Leptospira?

Post by Dr. Lauren Stump

Fleas, allergies, heat stroke…

These are things most of us have heard of happening when temperatures get hot, but summertime is also the start of peak season for infection with a lesser known and much less common disease. Leptospira bacteria cause Leptospirosis, or “Lepto,” a bacterial infection that damages the kidneys and the liver. Because the bacteria that causes Lepto is spread through wild animal urine, most dogs get it by drinking out of stagnant or slow moving water that has been contaminated. Any dog that drinks out of or swims in ponds, creeks, or even some puddles and ditches is at the highest risk. More cases are seen during rainy seasons, since increased runoff from other sources can contaminate standing water. Peak infection season starts in late summer and runs all the way to January, although it can happen at any time.

The bacteria can cause serious disease depending on the level of infection and the patient, and the liver and kidneys are most heavily affected. Signs that dogs show can range from loss of appetite and a dull attitude early on to joint pain, diarrhea, vomiting, or collapse as it progresses. Jaundice can occur when the liver isn’t functioning properly and a metabolic product called bilirubin builds up in the blood. The initial signs of a Lepto infection can look exactly like many other diseases and conditions, so we start by gathering a good history, performing any indicated tests, and giving supportive care while we piece together the picture and determine the actual cause.

Since symptoms can range from mild to severe, a decision to test for Leptospirosis is usually made after evaluating your pet’s health in conjunction with the results of preliminary laboratory tests. A definitive diagnosis of Lepto is made through specific testing that can be performed on blood or urine. If your pet has Lepto, antibiotic therapy to treat the infection is given in addition to a supportive care regimen to get them through the illness. Hospitalization with laboratory tests every 24-48 hours might be needed to monitor internal organ function if the case is severe. Intravenous fluid therapy, possibly along with a diuretic, might be given to keep the patient hydrated and make sure there is adequate kidney perfusion and toxin removal. Therapies that protect and support the liver, kidneys, and immune system are an important cornerstone of treatment. Other medications are given as needed to treat the various symptoms, and sometimes blood or plasma transfusions are indicated if the patient is in really dire straits. If treatment is initiated relatively quickly, the chances of your pet making a recovery are excellent. It is a very serious infection though, and can result in permanent kidney and liver damage and even death if it goes untreated.

There is a vaccine available for dogs that are at a high risk, either included in the Distemper “combination” vaccine, or by itself. The stand-alone vaccine gives more protection, and if given separately we have the opportunity to evaluate whether your pet is truly at risk and needs the additional vaccine. Plus, Lepto must be given every year, but we’ve moved to a 3-year vaccination schedule for the Distemper combination vaccine in adult dogs. So, it makes sense to do them separately. Just keep in mind that no vaccine is 100% effective and there’s always (albeit a very small) chance of side effects or a reaction to the vaccine itself. If your dog has been fine for other vaccines in the past, he or she likely won’t have problems with the Lepto vaccine.

In addition to being particularly nasty for your pet, Leptospira can also infect humans! So if your pet happens to get a case of Lepto, you’ll need to be very cautious when handling anything that has urine on it and watch for any flu-like symptoms such as fever or nausea in yourself. If you want more information on it, check out the Center for Disease Control’s page on the Leptospirosis infection in humans.

Stay safe out there this summer, enjoy the outdoors, and let’s talk about the Lepto vaccine if you think your pet might be at risk!

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