Q: My veterinarian wants to vaccinate my dog for a disease called leptospirosis. I have never heard of this, but she said it could make my dog very sick or kill him. She said if he comes in contact with wildlife, then he is at risk. There are deer and squirrels in my yard sometimes, but they run as soon as my dog goes outside. Does that count? I don’t really know what to do about the vaccine. What do you think?
A: Well, no surprise here, but I would be inclined to agree with your veterinarian and have your pet vaccinated against leptospirosis. After reading this, I hope you will understand a little more about the problems lepto can cause and the value of prevention.
Leptospirosis has been considered one of the world’s most widespread zoonotic diseases. That means dogs can spread the disease to people.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between 100 and 150 lepto cases are identified in people in the United States each year, with about half of those coming from Puerto Rico. If a person becomes infected, it must be reported to local and state health officials. It’s that important.
Leptospirosis is caused by a bacteria called Leptospira that lives in host animals, including deer, opossums, raccoons, rats and skunks. The bacteria does not make those animals sick, but they shed the bacteria to water sources, like puddle and streams, when they urinate.
Dogs and people become infected when they come in contact with infected water, either by drinking it or through damaged skin.
Once in the body, the bacteria spread quickly to multiple organ systems. Patients can have a fever or painful joints, or they just might feel bad.
After a short time, the bacteria settles in the kidneys, resulting in kidney failure in 90 percent of patients. A few will have liver failure instead, but that is rare and certainly not a better outcome.
To diagnose leptospirosis, your veterinarian will submit blood and urine samples to the lab. In a few days, a diagnosis is made, and treatment can be started — some veterinarians will treat for the disease while the test results are pending.
The mainstay of treatment is IV fluids to flush the kidneys out and combat kidney failure. To fight the bacteria, the antibiotics amoxicillin and doxycycline are the treatment of choice.
The bacteria are cleared from the blood 24 hours after starting antibiotic therapy, but it takes about a week to clear them from the urine.
The prognosis for animals infected with lepto is guarded, depending on the extent of the organ damage. If caught and diagnosed early, survival rates are 80 to 90 percent. Years ago, we had a lepto-positive German shepherd who was not as lucky and did not survive.
Cases like that stay with you and hopefully have helped other lepto-positive animals have a better outcome.
This all ties back to your question: Prevention through vaccination is so important.
Most vaccines today cover the four most common strains, or serovars, of the bacteria. It is recommended that at-risk dogs receive two doses of the vaccine spaced four weeks apart.
Then they need to have a booster each year. At-risk dogs are ones that are around standing water and rodents or wildlife. That is pretty much 99 percent of all dogs in West Virginia.
As a veterinarian, I want to keep your dog healthy and happy and watch him become a sweet old guy with you. But my other job is to keep you happy and healthy. We wear a lot of hats, huh?
If vaccinating your pet against leptospirosis will accomplish both goals, then I am all for it. Good luck.