By Dr. Anndrea Hatcher
You know that string of letters that represents one of the shots that your dog needs to get? The “L” stands for leptospirosis. Sometimes biology and medicine create such lovely words. My dad, an aquatic biologist, wanted to name me *Spirogyra* after a filamentous green algae. Wow. I wonder if then everyone would have to italicize my name in order to be writing it correctly. The name I ended up with was strange enough. Like the spiraled algae, leptospirosis is caused by a spirochete bacteria shaped like Shirley Temple’s ringlets. And that is where the beauty ends.
Leptospirosis is one of the most common zoonotic diseases worldwide. Zoonotic means a disease that spreads from animals to people. That is why we vaccinate our dogs for it. Currently it is thought that cats are unlikely to be infected by it and there isn’t a feline vaccine for it.
The signs that a dog may have leptospirosis include increased drinking and urination, dehydration, vomiting and jaundice. The bacteria damage the liver and kidneys. Ten to 30 percent of dogs suffering from leptospirosis die.
In humans, leptospirosis causes flu-like symptoms in the first phase, and then may progress to the more severe second stage of meningitis, liver damage and kidney failure.
How are dogs infected? They may drink water from a puddle that has been contaminated by infected urine from a sick raccoon, opossum, squirrel or deer. Or they may investigate and lick an area where an infected mouse or rat has urinated in the house. Water loving Labrador retrievers may get it from swimming in a contaminated pond, lake or stream.
How are people infected? The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that one third of people that get leptospirosis are exposed to it by their infected dog and one third get it from rats. The final third of humans contract the disease from the environment, often by drinking from or swimming in contaminated lakes, ponds or streams. Despite Leptospirosis’ label as one of the most common worldwide zoonotic diseases, the CDC reports only 100-200 human cases in the United States per year.
We can help prevent it by vaccinating our dogs. However, one of the drawbacks of any vaccine in humans or dogs is the risk of vaccine reactions. These can range from potentially fatal (anaphylaxis), to hives (allergic) to a small lump under the skin that goes away within a couple of weeks. For that reason, some veterinarians stopped vaccinating for leptospirosis. Since then, the number of cases of leptospirosis in dogs and humans has been increasing nationwide. This may be due partly to the fact that less dogs are being vaccinated for the disease and partly because people are developing land that was previously rural, exposing pet dogs to infected wildlife.
Because younger puppies seem more likely to react to the leptospirosis vaccine, the first dose can be held off until 12 weeks of age, then the second dose given one month later.
I require dogs that board in my kennel to be vaccinated against leptospirosis to protect the other boarders, my patients, my staff, myself and my children and husband, who help out at work. I recommend that my patients be vaccinated for leptospirosis once a year, but I don’t recommend that you name your kid Spirochete.
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