Leptospirosis is a disease of land mammals that can affect many different organ systems within the body; therefore, there is no one set of clinical signs that shouts out LEPTOSPIROSIS. For the purpose of this discussion we will limit the discussion to dogs although cattle, raccoons, opossums, horses, etc have the disease and can carry the disease and can transfer the disease to your pet.
The disease is transferred from the carrier animal (dog, raccoon, etc) to your dog via the urine of the carrier animal. The leptospira organism has many serovars (sub specie types) but there are four in particular that are most dangerous to your dog. The carrier animal urinates on the ground or in puddles or ponds. Depending upon weather conditions, the organism can survive for long periods of time – particularly in stagnant water such as farm ponds.
Once taken in orally (usually drinking water or eating food that has been urinate on by rats, mice, raccoons, carrier dogs, etc.), the leptospira organism penetrates through the oral mucosa of the new victim. The newly infected dog can manifest an entire range of clinical symptoms. Although severe kidney disease is the most common clinical manifestation, the clinical signs of the disease can range from mild malaise for several days to vomiting/diarrhea/dehydration to liver failure to bleeding tendencies to eye infections – and every thing in between. Of course, any of these clinical signs can also be caused by multiple other problems.
There is no quick test for leptospirosis. To diagnose the disease, your veterinarian must have a high suspicion of the disease early in the course of clinical signs, obtain and send a blood sample to the lab, treat your pet, and upon your pet’s recovery from his/her disease, send another sample to the lab. The lab will run a test for the blood titer to leptospirosis on both samples. If the titer is substantially increased in the second sample, the diagnosis is confirmed. There are other more complicated and expensive tests but none more accurate. The diagnostic problem exists in situations when there is only a slight increase in titer. The problem is further complicated in dogs who have received leptospirosis vaccinations earlier in life but have not been vaccinated in recent years.
Leptospirosis exists in Carter County. Our clinic has documented cases of leptospirosis. We also include the four primary serovars for dogs in our routinely recommended annual vaccinations. Over the years our clinic staff has encountered several pet owners who have an irrational fear of the leptospirosis vaccine and refuse to have their pets vaccinated. In fact, the potential for infection and the severity of the subsequent disease is still being argued within the veterinary profession. Twenty years ago, most of the opponents to vaccination were academic type veterinarians who did not work in a general practice setting and who became convinced that the disease was irrelevant. As a result of the objection by some of the “experts” and specialists, many veterinarians discontinued the use of the vaccine. Once more and more animals became unvaccinated, the prevalence of the disease rebounded. Our clinic never discontinued the use of the vaccine.
New infections of leptospirosis are more common in the autumn months as those are the months when carrier wildlife travel a larger range of territory looking for food and thereby contaminate larger areas of ground and water supplies. Of all the pets that become infected with leptospirosis, some can be successfully treated, some will survive but will have chronic kidney damage, and some will die during the initial attack of the disease. The death rate from leptospirosis infection has been estimated to be as high as 30% of those pets that contract the disease.
The staff at the Elizabethton Veterinary Clinic recommends annual vaccination against this disease.