Leptospirosis (or “Lepto” for short) has been a hot topic this past year, at least in some circles in West Seattle. I’ve talked to a lot of clients who read about it on a local blog or saw a flier posted at their dog park. This potentially-fatal infection is typically very rare, but it struck a handful of local dogs during our summer pandemic lockdown in 2020. It was a heartbreaking reminder that this infection is present right here, in our neighborhoods and possibly in our backyards. No one should be fearful or avoidant of enjoying the outdoors and the natural beauty of Seattle, but your dogs should be vaccinated to protect them – and yourself.
What is Leptospirosis & how did it get here?
Leptospirosis is a spirochete bacteria, which is a unique class of spiral-shaped bacterial pathogens (Lyme’s disease is also in this class). There are diﬀerent strains of Leptospirosis that can be carried by some animals without making them sick, but that they spread to the environment through their urine. Urban wildlife is essentially the top suspected culprit of exposure locally – especially rats, which are nocturnal (so you may not necessarily see they’re around).
How could my dog get exposed?
Leptospirosis bacteria can survive in the environment for some time, particularly in cool or moist areas. And this microscopic bacteria can travel across a mucous membrane (such as getting into the mouth, nostril or eye) or can infect through a break in the skin (like a cut or abrasion). So dogs can get exposed essentially by just being dogs: chewing on grass, licking at a puddle, sniﬃng at something interesting (like where some other creature recently urinated) then licking their noses. Licking their feet after walking around outside. Existing as a normal dog.
What happens with Leptospirosis infection?
Dogs and people can have serious disease after getting infected with Leptospirosis (interestingly, we don’t see this disease in cats that we know of). In dogs, initially, they often have a few days of vague symptoms as the infection spreads throughout the body (fever, lethargy, not eating), but then most commonly they start to show signs of liver failure or kidney failure or both. They get much sicker, with profuse vomiting, extreme lethargy, and possibly signs of pain, diarrhea, or jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes). When dogs are infected, they can also shed the bacteria in their urine, potentially exposing other dogs or people in the home.
How is Leptospirosis infection treated?
Once dogs are sick, they are usually in organ failure and we are fighting to save either lives. They need intensive hospitalized critical care with IV fluids and antibiotics. Dogs can survive the infection, but unfortunately even with the best care some dogs don’t.
How can it be prevented?
Maintaining current vaccination with the 4-serovar vaccine (which protects from 4 diﬀerent strains of the bacteria, sometimes called the “4-way”) is the best prevention. Because Leptospirosis bacteria is microscopic and exposure can be through normal daily activities, avoidance is not a good prevention strategy. If you have an obvious issue with rats or raccoons near your home, interventions are recommended since they also carry other diseases. But preventing wildlife from running through your yard periodically is not practical.
What to expect with Leptospirosis vaccination?
When starting the vaccine or if significantly overdue, a series of two injections spaced 3-4 weeks apart is needed to build immunity. It is then boostered annually. Older vaccines for this disease used to cause a lot of reactions (and nearly 100% of dachshunds had an allergic reaction!), but newer vaccine technology has resolved this issue as well as created more eﬀective vaccines: the older shots also needed to be boostered twice a year to maintain good protection.
It’s not uncommon that your dog may be quite sore for a day after the vaccine, similar to people after the COVID 19 vaccine — but it’s well worth that for the protection.
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