Depending on where you live and where your canine companion spends portions of his recreational time, your veterinarian may recommend a leptospirosis vaccine for your dog. Prevention of leptospirosis is imperative for two reasons. This infectious disease can have devastating consequences for your dog, including kidney damage, liver damage and even death. And leptospirosis is a zoonotic illness that can pass from your dog to every member of your family.
From Exposure to Infection
Leptospirosis is an illness caused by spiral-shaped bacteria called leptospira. These bacteria do not thrive in cold or dry conditions, so the disease is more prevalent in warmer months and in areas with heavy rainfall. The illness is contracted through physical contact with urine from infected wildlife such as opossums, rats, skunks, raccoons and squirrels. These carriers shed the bacteria in their urine. If your dog steps into the urine and subsequently licks his paws, or if he drinks from a puddle that contains the urine, the bacteria enter his bloodstream and multiply, releasing toxins that attack his liver and kidneys. The incubation period ranges from two days to nearly four weeks. General symptoms such as high fever, vomiting, stiffness, blood tinged urine, appetite loss and general malaise occur four to 12 days after exposure.
Diagnosis, Treatment and Prognosis
Due to the generalized nature of the symptoms, various blood screenings -- including a complete blood count to detect infection, a chemistry profile to evaluate kidney and liver function and a specific test that screens for leptospirosis -- are all used to diagnose the disease. Antibiotic therapy kills the bacteria, and intravenous fluid therapy rehydrates the patient and flushes out the kidneys, protecting them from further damage. Effects on the liver and kidneys can be reversed. Treatment initiated at the first sign of symptoms ensures the best chance for most dogs to make a complete recovery with no lasting liver disease or kidney damage. Some dogs still may incur chronic renal failure or chronic active hepatitis.
Region and Lifestyle Determine Risk
Unlike the distemper combination and rabies vaccines, the American Animal Hospital Association does not consider the leptospirosis vaccine a core vaccine. Veterinarians are advised to issue their recommendations of this vaccine based upon geographical area of residence and on the dog’s potential for exposure. If your toy Pomeranian shares your urban apartment with you or is trained to eliminate on pads indoors, he is less likely to encounter the contaminants from carrier wildlife. Conversely, if your retriever resides in a rural area, or if he frequently accompanies you on hiking or camping expeditions, he is much more likely to come in contact with the leptospira bacteria. If your veterinarian has seen a number of leptospirosis cases in his practice, he will likely recommend the leptospirosis vaccine for your dog.
Benefits for Both of You
Leptospirosis is a zoonotic infection: It can transmit to humans from affected animals. By vaccinating your dog, you reduce the chances of your dog contracting the disease and in turn reduce your chances. Another benefit of having your dog inoculated is that of saving potentially thousands of dollars on diagnosis and treatment. Treatment typically includes several days of intensive care, intravenous fluid therapy and antibiotic treatment. Some surviving patients are left with permanent kidney or liver damage, which requires purchasing a prescription diet and medications for the remainder of your dog’s life.
Weigh the Risks and Benefits
Vaccination may not prevent the disease altogether, but the protection offered will reduce the severity of the illness if it's contracted. When the first vaccines against leptospirosis were formulated, they accounted for the largest number of adverse reactions. Newer technology has enabled the production of a safer vaccine that provides protection against multiple strains of leptospirosis without the reaction-causing proteins and cellular debris that had previously infiltrated the vaccine preparation. Any dog can have a reaction to any vaccination, so be sure to alert your veterinarian if your dog has a history of vaccine reactions. It is important to have a conversation with your veterinarian about your dog’s residency, lifestyle and medical history so that together you can weigh the risks and benefits to arrive at the best preventative plan for your beloved family member.