Having had two cases develop acute kidney failure from this bacterial organism in the last nine months, we felt it prudent to discuss Leptospirosis: what it is, how dogs and humans can get it, and ways to prevent it.
Leptospirosis is a disease that is caused from infection with bacteria in the Leptospira family. These bacteria can cause acute kidney and/or liver damage that can lead to organ failure in many cases. It is also one of the most important zoonotic disease worldwide – meaning it is one of the most common diseases transmitted from animals to humans.
We don’t see much Leptospirosis in humans in the U.S. because we have toilets and good sanitation, but in developing countries it is a significant problem. There is also currently an outbreak of this disease in homeless human populations in New York City. The organism is carried in the urine of infected animals and can be acquired from contact with contaminated water or with the urine of an infected animal.
Late summer and early fall generally bring an increased incidence of Leptospirosis in dogs. Leptospira bacteria are most commonly transmitted in the urine of mammalian wildlife — generally rodents, raccoons, and deer.
Even though we aren’t teeming with wildlife in the Arlington and DC area, we do have plenty of a very important carrier of this organism: city rats. Because of the rodent populations in urban environments most dogs in our area are in fact at risk for contracting Leptospirosis. Interestingly enough, cats do not contract the disease.
Leptospirosis is often under-diagnosed due to the vague signs it can cause. The liver and kidneys are the most common organs to be affected by Leptospirosis, ranging from mild to life-threatening illness. The common signs dogs exhibit after contracting Leptospirosis are fever, lethargy, muscle and joint pain, vomiting, diarrhea and increased thirst or urination, much like having the flu in people.
If your pet exhibits symptoms of Leptospirosis, his or her veterinarian will generally run bloodwork and a urinalysis, as well as testing to detect an immune response in the blood or the presence of the bacteria itself in the blood and urine. Most animals with illness consistent with Leptospirosis need to be hospitalized on intravenous fluids and antibiotics for several days, and sometimes can be left with permanent liver and kidney damage.
A vaccination against four different strains of the Leptospira bacteria is widely used and reliable for preventing and decreasing severity of disease, as well as prevention of bacterial shedding in the urine to prevent human infection. Even though there are over 200 strains of Leptospira, the four that are included in the canine vaccine are the ones responsible for about 90 percent of infections.
After an initial series of two vaccines given three weeks apart, the vaccine is given annually. Leptospirosis is an important disease to prevent due to the risk of severe, life-threatening illness to both pets and humans. Given the prevalence of this disease in this area, the severity of the course of the disease, and the safety and efficacy of the vaccination we recommend vaccination for the majority of our canine patients.