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A Primer on Leptospirosis

Of all the vaccination questions I receive, the most common one is from folks questioning whether or not to vaccinate their dogs for Leptospirosis. And I am so pleased they are asking- I love when people recognize that simply handing their dog over for “the works” in response to a vaccination reminder card (or these days, perhaps an email reminder) simply doesn’t make sense.

Unlike canine distemper and parvovirus- infectious bad guys that are ubiquitous in the environment and against which all dogs should receive vaccine protection- not all dogs come into contact with Leptospirosis. Exposure is truly dependent on where you and your dog live and his or her extracurricular activities- in medical jargon this is referred to as “biolifestyle”. Leptospirosis organisms are bacteria that thrive in warmer, wetter climates. Wild animals (particularly deer and rodents) and some domesticated animals (cows, sheep, pigs) can be Leptospirosis carriers. Although infected, they manage to maintain good health while shedding Leptospirosis organisms in their urine. Dogs can develop the disease by coming into contact with the infected urine or urine contaminated soil, water, food, or bedding. So, if your dog’s biolifestyle includes roaming on rural property or drinking from creeks, streams, lakes, or rivers the potential for exposure to Leptospirosis is far greater than if your pup is a couch potato and your yard is devoid of trespassing wildlife.

Not all dogs become sick when exposed to Leptospirosis, but for those that do, the results can be devastating. Symptoms associated with kidney failure (lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite) are most common. The liver and lungs are also targets for this disease. Your veterinarian will suspect Leptospirosis based on the history your provide, abnormal kidney and/or liver enzymes on blood testing, and specific blood and/or urine testing for Leptospirosis.

Successful treatment ideally consists of aggressive round the clock intravenous fluids and antibiotics. If the kidneys become so inflamed that urine production diminishes, temporary dialysis may be recommended. Infected dogs should be housed in an isolation ward to protect other hospitalized patients and personnel are advised to wear protective garb (gloves, gown, goggles) as Leptospirosis is considered a zoonotic disease (humans can become infected via contact with infected urine). Yes, such therapy is expensive- far more costly than the price of a vaccination- and in spite of everyone’s best efforts, some dogs do succumb to Leptospirosis.

The Leptospirosis vaccine provides adequate protection for one year and, in theory, the risk of adverse reactions is no different than reported with other vaccinations. However, some vets feel strongly that the Lepto vaccine is more likely to produce transient “post-vaccine blues” than are other vaccinations.

Is the Leptospirosis vaccination appropriate for your dog? Talk to your vet to find out whether or not the disease has been reported in your neck of the woods. Next consider your doggie’s biolifestyle. Does your pup live in a pristinely kept environment or does he go camping and hiking with you? If your pup lives in an environment with no standing water or exposure to wildlife, the risks of vaccinating clearly outweigh the benefits. If you and your best buddy love to hike and camp together, vaccinating may be a no-brainer. As I routinely advise whenever discussing vaccines: Administration of vaccinations is no different than any other medical procedure- they should not be administered without individualized discussion and consideration of the potential risks and benefits.

Have you considered vaccinating your dog for Leptospirosis? If so, whereabouts do you live and how did you (will you) decide whether to say “yea or nay” to the vaccine?

Nancy Kay D.V.M.
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Website: http://www.speakingforspot.com
Spot’s Blog: http://www.speakingforspot.com/blog
Email: dr.kay@speakingforspot.com

Written by

Dr. Nancy Kay wanted to become a veterinarian for just about as long as she can remember. Her veterinary degree is from Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine, and she completed her residency training in small animal internal medicine at the University of California-Davis Veterinary School. Dr. Kay is a board certified specialist in the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine and published in several professional journals and textbooks. She lectures professionally to regional and national audiences, and one of her favorite lecture topics is communication between veterinarians and their clients. Since the release of her book, Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life, Dr. Kay has lectured extensively and written numerous magazine articles on the topic of medical advocacy and veterinarian/client communication. She was a featured guest on the popular National Public Radio show, Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Dr. Kay's newest book is called, Your Dog's Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet. Her award winning blog, "Spot Speaks" is posted weekly (www.speakingforspot.com/blog). Dr. Kay was selected by the American Animal Hospital Association to receive the 2009 Hill’s Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award. This award is given annually to a veterinarian or nonveterinarian who has advanced animal welfare through extraordinary service or by furthering humane principles, education, and understanding. Dr. Kay was selected as the 2011 Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year, an award presented every year by the American Veterinary Medical Association to a veterinarian whose work exemplifies and promotes the human animal bond. Dr. Kay has received several awards from the Dog Writer’s Association of America. Dr. Kay's personal life revolves around her husband (also a veterinarian), her three children (none of whom aspire to be veterinarians) and their menagerie of four-legged family members. When she's not writing, she spends her spare moments in the garden or riding atop her favorite horse. Dr. Kay and her husband reside in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
  • HELEN HOWARD May 13, 2014 at 9:39 AM


  • J Chambers May 13, 2014 at 10:08 AM

    Our Welsh Terrier had a pretty severe reaction to the vaccine–vomiting, lethargy, partial, temporary hind leg paralysis and severe hives. Most of the people on a Welsh site advised not getting the booster. That is also my thought! Are we correct?

    We live near woods with deer, but the dogs never go in that part of the property.

  • Jani May 13, 2014 at 10:29 AM

    My older Gordon had a reaction to the lepto vaccine at age 6 and hasn’t had it since. He did get it at 1 year old with no issues and since I did titers for distemper and parvo in the subsequent years, he just never got the lepto vaccine. I live in a small city, fenced yard, and our walks are through our neighborhood, so no standing water, streams, etc. Since I work for my vet, I keep an eye out for any outbreaks of lepto, but we haven’t had anything for years. When we traveled to dog shows before my two retired, they were mostly in open areas or indoors. I did have them both get the canine influenza vaccine while they were showing, though, as we went to several states that had had outbreaks (as we are having now in RI).

  • Maureen May 19, 2014 at 8:11 AM

    Another factor to consider if you live in a city and don’t go “exploring” with your dogs… do your neighbors have chickens that are attracting rats? Rats are apparently to blame for the increased incidence of Leptospirosis in urban and suburban areas, and they are attracted by the chickens and “urban farms”. I just lost a dog to Leptospirosis (confirmed by PCR) and she hadn’t been out of the neighborhood in over a year, but we have several neighbors with chickens, and had been dealing with rats.

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