Leptospirosis, a disease that damages the liver and kidneys, can affect you and your pets. It has reemerged in North America, say professionals at the Center for Disease Control, who describe the disease as a notable source of mortality.
As the number of cases climbs, some veterinarians are suggesting Leptospirosis vaccines to protect pets and their families. To learn more about the disease and whether the vaccine is right for your pets, talk to your veterinary team.
“You’ve got to be really careful because Leptospirosis can spread to people as well, so it’s urgent to protect pets as well as ourselves.”
- Anne Pierce, DVM, of AAHA-accredited North Academy Veterinary in Colorado
The disease, which is transmitted through contact with water, food, or soil that contains urine from infected animals, affects many animals (including people) but cats are rarely affected. Symptoms in pets, which can be similar to the flu, should be reported to veterinary professionals as soon as possible. Early treatment can prevent serious health problems.
In addition to exposure from eating food or drinking water that has been contaminated with urine from sick animals, pets can get Leptospirosis by sniffing the ground or rolling in grass where a sick animal has urinated. Pets with scrapes or scratches on their skin are particularly susceptible.
Leptospirosis has been diagnosed in pets worldwide but it is most common in places where temperatures are mild. It is also seasonal. Veterinarians report most cases in late summer to fall, especially in places with notable rainy seasons.
Linda Ross, DVM, MS, recommends the vaccine in places where Leptospirosis is common. However, cases have also been reported in areas that were once considered safe.
Although some doctors say the disease is rare in dry, arid areas of the country, the number of Leptospirosis cases in Colorado – and other arid climates – has increased, in the last few years.
The vaccine requires yearly boosters and provides pets with some protection, but nothing is foolproof since so many wild animals carry Leptospirosis, said Ross, who works at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Massachusetts.
“I tell my clients, you can limit the area in which your dog walks, but you can’t prevent other animals from walking in that area, [or] even in your own yard,” Ross said.
Anne Pierce, DVM, of AAHA-accredited North Academy Veterinary in Colorado recommends the Leptospirosis vaccine because she has seen a rise in cases, which she attributes to wet summers.
“The vaccine is worth doing despite the potential for adverse reactions,” she said. Because Leptospirosis comes in several different serovars (species), no vaccine can protect against all of them.
“Even so, partial protection is better than no protection,” Pierce argued. “It’s important to catch Leptospirosis before your pets are ill.... In really bad cases, [pets] were fine one day, and the next morning they can’t get up. You’ve got to be really careful because Leptospirosis can spread to people as well, so it’s urgent to protect pets as well as ourselves,” she emphasized.
Vaccines require yearly boosters, but they do not always guarantee immunity for a complete year, say veterinary professionals. That is why it is important to watch pets closely even if they get the vaccine and annual boosters.
“Citing an alarming increase in Leptospirosis cases, bacteriologists at the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine’s Diagnostic Laboratory in New York, are urging dog owners to watch for symptoms of the disease until improved vaccines are available,” wrote Roger Segelken in a Cornell study.
Michael A. New, DVM, MRCVS, does not recommend routine Leptospirosis vaccines because he has not seen the disease where he practices in southeast Alaska. “Since dropping Leptospirosis from our vaccination protocol two years ago, we have had almost no vaccine reactions,” he added.
When clients move, New suggests that they contact AAHA hospitals for vaccine recommendations. “In areas of the country where Leptospirosis occurs, it is crucial to identify the serotype responsible for local outbreaks and to vaccinate annually against that particular serotype as there does not appear to be any cross-protection with vaccination against the eight known strains,” New cautioned.
Peter Rodgers, DVM, of Holistic Veterinary House Calls in Colorado, does not typically recommend Leptospirosis vaccines, partially because of the adverse reactions associated with them, which may include skin irritations, diarrhea, vomiting, and personality changes. The new vaccines may produce less of a reaction, he added.
“Sometimes the reactions to vaccines are very subtle, and things just aren’t quite right [afterward]. Any time a vaccine is given, there’s potential for some kind of reaction. When you use a vaccine, what’s the risk of the illness you’re trying to protect against? You weigh that risk against the risk of the vaccine. When Leptospirosis occurs, it’s really serious, but is that enough to warrant mass vaccination? Individual clients must weigh this and be educated about potential adverse reactions,” advised Rodgers.
Ask your veterinary professional if the Leptospirosis vaccine is right for your dog.
Some dogs do not show signs of illness but common symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain
- Refusal to eat
- Severe weakness
- Severe muscle pain
- Bloody urine
- Increased thirst and urination
- Shock or collapse
Leptospirosis can be identified with blood and urine tests as well as clinical observation
Fluid therapies, anti-nausea medication, antibiotics, and, in extreme cases, dialysis and other therapies
This article originally appeared in PetsMatter Volume 2 Issue 3, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2009 AAHA. Find out more.