The Centers for Disease Control removed Leptospirosis from the “reportable human diseases” list, but there is still significant concern over this zoonotic disease. Our pets are susceptible to Leptospirosis as well, but many owners are afraid to vaccinate for the illness. What’s the real story and how can we keep our pets and families safe?
What is Leptospirosis?
Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease - a disease that can be passed between animals and people. It is spread by spirochete (spiral-shaped) bacteria in the urine of infected rodents, wildlife, and pets. There are more than 200 different strains of Leptospirosis and certain strains appear to prefer certain hosts, like dogs, pigs, raccoons or even rats.
How does infection occur?
through mucous membranes or abrasions on the skin
from direct exposure to infected urine
through contaminated environment, such as water or damp soil
exposure can happen while camping or participating in outdoor recreational activities
drinking or swimming in water that is infected with Leptospirosis
wet soil can be contaminated as well
How to recognize infection
The signs of Leptospirosis can mimic many other diseases and illnesses. The first signs in dogs are often depression, loss of appetite, vomiting, weakness, and generalized pain. Affected dogs may also drink water and urinate excessively and have swollen, red, and painful eyes. Because these signs are common to other diseases and non-specific, owners may try to treat their pets at home for such problems as an upset stomach or arthritis.
This wait and see response delays proper diagnosis and treatment for the dog, as well as increasing the owner’s exposure to the disease. If caught early, treatment is usually effective and the survival rate is good. However, time is of the essence. A mere three or four day delay can lead to irreversible kidney failure.
Vaccines are available but many pet owners have either experienced or heard about adverse reactions associated with these vaccines. In the past, Leptospirosis vaccines were generally created using the whole bacterial organism. In many cases, when a whole bacterium is used, the likelihood of a vaccine reaction increases. Thankfully, newer vaccines have been developed that reduce this possibility by using specific Leptospirosis proteins instead of the whole organism.
A study reviewing vaccine reactions in more than one million dogs vaccinated found that reactions occur about 13 times for every 10,000 vaccines given. More importantly, the Leptospirosis vaccine was no more likely to cause a reaction than any other vaccine.
Because there are so many Leptospirosis strains, no one vaccine will cover every possible exposure a pet might have. At present, vaccines are available that protect against four of the common strains infecting dogs. In addition, the vaccine will prevent clinical disease, but may not stop the pet from shedding bacteria in the urine. This makes the pet a threat to other animals, especially those who are not vaccinated. And, as mentioned above, humans are at risk as well.
Worldwide, Leptospirosis is the most widespread zoonotic disease. Cases occur routinely in tropical countries, but increases have been seen in Europe and North America as well. Floods and hurricanes are instrumental in spreading this illness and coordinated efforts to rescue and re-home pets from these disasters might actually transplant Leptospirosis into new areas.
Protecting your pet from Leptospirosis is a complex situation. Use your veterinarian as a resource to help assess your pet’s risk factors as well as the benefits and hazards of vaccination. Other important steps that might minimize your pet’s exposure to this disease include removing animal pests, such as rodents and draining areas of standing water.
The information given here in this article is for general discussion and educational purposes only. You are urged to discuss all aspects of your pet's care with your primary care veterinarian.
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