Lepto Who?

Photograph, courtesy of Paulette Keller.
Photograph, courtesy of Paulette Keller.

By Paulette Keller. First published in The New Barker dog magazine, December, 2007.

On Sunday, he didn’t finish his dinner. Monday, we were at the vet. Tuesday, his urine turned dark and the blood work showed liver problems. Wednesday, he was admitted to the vet hospital. The search began – why were his liver and kidneys failing? Was he poisoned? Did he eat a toxic plant? Did he contract an infectious disease and in all cases, from where or what?

He was our senior dog, one of three, living a coddled life in urban Tampa Bay. He took neighborhood walks, visits to local parks and out of town vacations. He was never outside alone. He wasn’t a grazer, scarfing up garbage.

When our veterinarian mentioned Leptospirosis as a possible diagnosis, I was stunned. Wait, we immunized them for that, right? Well, not exactly…and so my Leptospirosis learning started.

FROM A FORGOTTEN DISEASE TO AN EMERGING CONCERN. A Leptosprirosis (Lepto) internet search will give you over 1 million sites. It has been around for a long time and is found in many species: in the wild, in livestock and in our cats and dogs. Lepto is also a zoonotic disease, which means that it can be transmitted from animals to humans. A pet vaccine has long been available (1970’s), but with side effects. Not just painful, but some dogs were hypersensitive with severe allergic reactions. Since the disease threat seemed remote, the vaccine was recommended less often. Lepto was not on the radar screen.

In fact, until recently, Tampa Bay Veterinary Specialists of Largo received zero referrals for Leptospirosis -affected pets. TBVS Internal Medicine veterinarian Dr. Gary Oswald indicated that now see 10 to 15 cases a year, coming from urban and unincorporated areas. This is a significant increase. The total Lepto caseload is actually unknown, as many pets, like our dog, are treated by their primary vet.

SO WHAT HAPPENED? The Lepto bacteria includes over 200 strains or serovars – but most don’t cause illness. The original vaccine targeted the two, then most common, disease-causing strains. Now other strains are showing up in infected animals and previously immunized dogs were not protected. Dr. Oswald stated that Tampa Bay Veterinary Specialists see few cats with Lepto, but the new canine cases present with both liver and kidney problems, a double hit. Lepto can be cured by antibiotics, a good thing, although the damage to liver and kidneys can cause long-term complications.

On the good side: more recent vaccines are now multi-valent and reflect the most common, disease causing strains. Those vaccines to date, have few side effects. The down side is that it probably needs to be given at least annually.

IS MY DOG AT RISK? Lepto is spread many ways: when your pet is in contact with contaminated water or soil or when infected animals shed the leptospires in their urine. Maybe you don’t go to fairgrounds for dog shows (think exposure to cattle, livestock) or on hikes in forests (deer). But we do meet up with wildlife, even in our counties’ most densely populated sections. Our homes merge up to our treasured parks and preserves and new developments spring up out of once rural or farmland areas. Lepto likes fresh water, preferably stagnant, so the good news/bad news with our current drought is that there is less standing water, but the Lepto concentration may be higher in those shrinking pools. How often have we seen our dogs step in water and later at home lick their paws? And a break in the skin is all it takes.

Lepto is not in salt water and not in anything chlorinated such as your pool or drinking fountain. So if you and your canine companion live in a beach condo or offshore in a boat, frolic only in the Gulf and are not around other animals, your dog might not need the vaccine. The rest of us need to evaluate our lifestyle, do some research and as always, talk with our veterinarian.

A HAPPY ENDING. Not every Lepto infected dog presents as dramatically as ours did; a flu-like illness is more commonly seen, with fever, lethargy and reduced appetite. New testing methods help with the diagnosis of this potentially fatal disease. The key to this and any illness is knowing your pet’s normal behavior. Since Lepto is infectious, we quarantined our canine family to our property for a month. No parks, no dog club classes, no walks. Every trip outside, I carried a Clorox-water spray bottle and disinfected each dog’s urine deposits. We were quite a sight. Our senior dog recovered at home with antibiotics and supportive care. Two years later, he remains on once daily nutritional liver supplements and continues to enjoy life.

We don’t have a leptospirosis vaccine for humans, but we can help protect our cherished companions. Think about that.

UPDATE: There has been a recent outbreak of Leptospirosis in South Florida. Check out this television report from WPLG Local 10, Miami News.

Web link information provided by Dr. Oswald of Tampa Bay Veterinary Specialists: