What pet owners should know about leptospirosis

The recent diagnosis of a handful of local dogs with leptospirosis, a potentially fatal disease, has some pet owners concerned about the risk posed to their own four-legged friends. The Town Crier queried Dr. Thomas Hansen, a veterinarian at Adobe Animal Hospital in Los Altos, about “lepto” symptoms, treatments and the vaccine.

Q: How might local dogs contract the disease? Are certain dogs more at risk than others?

A: Leptospirosis is a bacterium, which is shed in the urine of infected animals, including mice, rats, raccoons, skunks and possums. Dogs are most commonly exposed either through direct contact with that urine or by ingesting contaminated water and soil.

Q: Has Adobe Animal Hospital noticed an uptick in lepto cases?

A: We have had a couple of cases in the hospital recently, which isn’t unusual per se as it is present in our region and increases in frequency can be seen with the rainy season.

Q: What are common symptoms pet owners should watch for?

A: Leptospirosis can result in kidney and/or liver damage, the most common symptoms of which include lethargy, poor/no appetite, a sudden increase in urine or thirst, vomiting, diarrhea or a yellow color in the skin, eyes, ears or mouth.

Another clinical sign to watch for would be respiratory signs (increased breathing rate, coughing, difficulty breathing), as leptospirosis can also cause lung damage, either through direct action (vasculitis-blood vessel inflammation and leakage) or through something called uremic pneumonitis (damage to the lung vessels as a result of kidney damage). It is important to note that these symptoms are not specific to leptospirosis, i.e., they can also be caused by other disease states. It is important that pet owners contact their veterinarian right away if they notice these or other symptoms or if they have concerns about their pet.

Q: What is the general course of treatment for patients?

A: Leptospirosis itself is treated with antibiotics, along with any supportive care that is needed to address its effects on the body (hospitalization for IV fluids, anti-nausea medications and stomach/intestinal protectants).

Q: How would you describe the prognosis?

A: With rapid diagnosis and treatment, the prognosis is generally good (70-85 percent survival rate), but in severe cases of liver and/or kidney damage, the outlook can be more guarded, and unfortunately not all pets survive. In some situations there can also be a degree of permanent damage requiring ongoing management.

Q: Do you recommend the lepto vaccine?

A: Vaccines are characterized as either “core” (recommended for all pets, regardless of individual circumstances) or “non-core” (may or may not be recommended depending on the individual pet’s risk factors). While the American Animal Hospital Association lists leptospirosis as a non-core vaccine, given its prevalence in our area, we will frequently recommend it after conducting a risk-based assessment of an individual patient.

Dogs that are at highest risk include those that spend a lot of time outdoors (especially going camping, having access to wildlife areas and drinking out of lakes/streams). Primarily house-based dogs would be at lower risk, but even these pets can become exposed to the urine of mice and raccoons passing through their backyard.

Q: How much does the vaccine cost?

A: The vaccine is $35. The initial series consists of a single vaccine followed by a booster two to four weeks later and then an annual vaccination.

It is important to note a couple things about the vaccine:

1. The protection conferred by this vaccine is not as long-lasting as vaccines for other conditions. It is very important that at-risk patients receive the vaccine each year or as otherwise directed by their veterinarian.

2. Even when properly vaccinated, the pet is not completely protected from potential infection. Leptospirosis is unique in that there are many serovars (subtypes). The vaccine protects against four of the most common ones, however it does not protect against all of them. Therefore, the best trifecta of protection comes from:

• Current vaccination

• Avoidance of high-risk sources (wild-animal urine, stagnant water)

• Careful monitoring and rapid communication with your veterinarian about any symptoms/concerns

Q: Is there anything else pet owners should keep in mind?

A: Leptospirosis is zoonotic, meaning it can be passed from animals (wild or pets) to people. Normal hygiene (handwashing) is important when cleaning up after your pet in general but is particularly true when caring for a pet that has been diagnosed with this condition.

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