Leptospirosis: A Rising Concern for New England’s Pets
Over the past year, the deadly bacterial infection known of Leptospirosis or “Lepto” has been on the rise. This disease can affect all mammal species (including humans) and veterinarians have seen an increase in the number of cases over the past several years, and spiking over the past few months. With early intervention of a sick pet, survival rates rarely go above 75%. Given the seriousness of illness, it’s important to know the facts of this deadly and highly contagious disease. As a professional in this field, I’m passionate about preventing what we can, where and when we can, and there is, frankly, a lot of bad information out there right now.
Leptospirosis has a worldwide distribution, including much of the United States and particularly in the northeast where temperatures may be between 80-90 F or areas where there is reliable rainfall. Direct contact with an infected animal’s bodily fluids, or indirect contact from urine – such as contaminated water or soil – can increase your pet’s risk. The bacteria can live for long periods of time in contaminated water and soil and has the ability to penetrate intact or broken skin and mucus membranes. Within 7-10 days, the bacteria spreads systemically to the kidneys, liver, spleen, central nervous system, eyes and genital tract. This can cause jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes) as a result of liver damage, and excessive drinking and urination from acute damage to the kidneys. Clinical signs are highly variable and can mimic many other conditions – lethargy, anorexia, vomiting, frequent urination – and many dogs have no overt clinical signs at all, making this a particularly dangerous and deadly disease.
Since Leptospirosis is not a “core” vaccination like “Distemper” (DHPP) and “Rabies”, many pet owners may opt out of getting their pet vaccinated if they feel they are not at risk, or more often, if they don’t feel like their pet is the “outdoorsy” type. This is a common misconception with urban living that should be reevaluated by pet owners. In Boston alone, the number of leptospirosis positive dogs has increased substantially over the past few years. This is in part due to the fact that we – like anywhere, still have rodents in our old homes and buildings and any interaction with rodents, animal urine, streams, ponds and puddles can put our pets at risk.
Currently, there is a perception of increased severe adverse reactions with the leptospirosis vaccines, and I’ve personally seen several breeders in the area discourage or even make owners sign contracts against vaccination for leptospirosis. On facebook and Google there are countless “this vaccine will kill your dog” campaigns from seemingly reputable and well-funded websites. And while I don’t know where these come from, I can confidently say I have no conflicts of interest, nor receive any payment or endorsements from any of the vaccine manufacturers when I say that this vaccine can save lives. Further, one large study showed that these vaccines were no more likely to cause adverse reactions than any other vaccine (Spiri, et al., 2017).
So what should you do? Keep an open and honest relationship with your veterinarian – many build the lepto portion into the Distemper vaccine for either the same cost or slightly more. If you want your pet protected but have concerns about safety, ask your vet if your pet could stay a few hours after receiving their vaccine for monitoring… I’m sure they’ll say yes!
Dr. Evans Biography
Dr. Evans found his passion for working with animals at a young age. After growing up in West Des Moines, Iowa he moved to Colorado where he earned a Biology Degree before transferring to Cornell College where he earned a Bachelor’s of Special Studies in Biology with a focus in Animal Sciences. He attended St. George’s University and was then clinically trained at the Ohio State University. He’s spent years in private practice working on the North Shore of Massachusetts and now is the Medical Director at Boston Animal Hospital in Boston’s South End. He has a special interest in soft tissue surgery and dentistry and works with numerous dog and cat rescues around the state. When not helping animals, Dr. Evans can be found paddle boarding, kayaking or hanging out with his fiancée, Abby, and his rescue animals – a Pit Bull named Ollie and his two rescue cats, Charlie and Jackson.