It’s that time of year again when we should all be aware of our pet’s exposure to the dreaded “lepto” bacteria. Any mammal can carry leptospirosis although some species, such as cats, are more resistant to the disease. The bacteria that causes leptospirosis is spread through the urine and feces of infected animals and can survive in the water or soil for weeks to months, although growth is favored in relatively warm, moist environments. This is why those of us in Sonoma County start seeing an increase in leptospirosis cases as the rain starts to fall. We also tend to see infections more commonly in dogs that venture out to the Russian River or go swimming in natural bodies of water where exposure maybe higher. But it is important to be aware that any dog, no matter how limited their outdoor activity, can become infected. The bacteria can penetrate damaged skin or mucus membranes such as in the mouth if contaminated water or soil is ingested.
It may take one to three weeks after exposure for a pet to become ill. When the disease manifests itself, most dogs will have variable signs such as fever, lack of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, yellow eyes or blood in the eye, or even labored breathing. If you see these symptoms please take your pet into their veterinarian or the closest emergency hospital. Your veterinarian will likely recommend bloodwork which may show kidney or liver failure, or bleeding disorders. Special diagnostic blood tests will be needed to confirm infection with leptospirosis but treatment can be instituted if the suspicion is high enough before confirming infection.
The severity of infection can vary but the good news is that with aggressive therapy, nearly 80% of dogs can survive. Aggressive medical therapy for the very sick pet unfortunately comes at a steep price with the average hospital stay in the range of 5-7 days at a cost of $6,000-8,000. If dialysis is required to clean the body of toxin build up as the kidneys heal, you may be looking at double that figure. So, if I had to choose, I would probably choose the $30 vaccine and save my pet from potential illness. Because things still do happen, this is my cheap plug to ask you all to consider pet insurance. There is nothing worse than not being able to afford treatment for your beloved pet, and as a veterinarian, nothing worse than not being able to provide that treatment.
Please remember this is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted to people so owners should take appropriate precautions, such as wearing gloves and hand washing around your pet if they are showing any symptoms. If your pet is diagnosed with leptospirosis, please reach out to your healthcare provider to see if you need to take any additional steps for your own health.
This post all started with the question “Do I Really Need to Vaccinate My Dog for Leptospirosis” and I hope you can see that the answer is a resounding YES! Of course circumstances vary and individual dogs may have certain conditions that prohibit them from receiving the vaccine, so please speak to your veterinarian. However the majority of pets can receive the vaccine and, while not 100% protective, it sure makes it less likely they will contract the disease. Sometimes prevention really is the best medicine. And if you are anything like me, there is nothing better than seeing your dog running around the banks of the river, living their best life!