The University of Florida School of Veterinary Medicine recently warned of a significant spike in the number of leptosporosis cases seen in dogs at their teaching hospital. This frightening disease should not be ignored because of the consequences for our pets, as well as the potential for it to spread to people.
Leptosporosis, commonly abbreviated as “lepto,” is a bacterial disease. It is typically spread by the urine of infected wildlife, including squirrels, rats, mice, opossums and raccoons. Unfortunately, these critters inhabit most of our backyards, so even dogs that never leave their own yard have the potential to be exposed. The bacteria also can live for some time in puddles and in the soil. The symptoms can be vague, which is why some call lepto “the great mimicker.” In dogs, abdominal pain, fever, loss of appetite, vomiting, and changes in the frequency of urination are all potential signs but are frustratingly signs of many other diseases as well. The testing for lepto can be difficult, time consuming and expensive, leaving many cases undiagnosed. Untreated, leptosporosis can lead to liver and kidney failure and be fatal.
When a dog becomes infected with the leptosporosis bacteria, they tend to drink more and pass the bacteria through their urine. Because the bacteria can be cutaneously spread, or is contagious through the skin, this puts human family members who come in contact with the infected urine at risk.
According to the CDC, symptoms in people include “fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, vomiting, jaundice, anemia, and sometimes a rash,” and can lead to kidney damage, liver failure, and even brain and respiratory disorders. If properly diagnosed, lepto is treatable with antibiotics in both dogs and people. In 2005, more than 40 people in Tampa caught leptosporosis after an adventure race that involved running though standing water around the Hillsborough River; it is in our immediate area.
There are several vaccines for leptosporosis in dogs that do an excellent job of preventing disease, but they are often underutilized for several reasons. Many dog owners decline the vaccine, mistakenly thinking that their dog would have to catch it from another dog. Years ago, veterinary schools mistakenly taught that only boar-hunting hounds needed to be vaccinated; at the time, it was not understood that other wildlife carried the bacteria. The second reason the vaccine is underutilized is because it is by far one of the most reactive vaccines, and some pets simply cannot get it without having a vaccine reaction. Studies have shown the general risk of a vaccine reaction is more with very small dogs and certain breeds, such as dachshunds.
Leptosporosis is a truly scary disease. Pet owners should be vigilant and careful, and not become a statistic in the University of Florida’s “spike” in cases.