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Duke is a 2 year old Golden Retriever who lives near San Bruno with a wonderful family. He is well cared for and loved by everyone!
However, one day Duke started vomiting. He wouldn’t eat very much and had no energy. It was clear that he was very sick. His family brought him to Dr Chiu, where bloodwork and x-rays were performed. There were some minor abnormalities with his kidney values on bloodwork, but the cause of his severe illness remained unclear. He was so sick, he even needed to stay overnight in the hospital to be given treatment. Because his symptoms could have been caused by an infection called Leptospirosis, Dr Chiu ordered special tests for this. The test came back positive, and with this information, we were able to start appropriate and life-saving treatment immediately.
What is leptospirosis?
Leptospirosis is a bacteria carried in the urine of wild animals, rodents, and livestock which can lead to serious illness in both dogs and humans. Dogs can be infected through direct or indirect contact with infected urine. Although traditionally thought to infect mostly “hunting” dogs who spend a lot of time outside, it has been found to cause illness in even our suburban and urban dogs. This means even small breed dogs who spend most of their lives inside can become infected! When we think of the spaces we take our dogs to- the backyard, local parks, the beach, and city streets- we remember that animals such as skunks, raccoons, and rodents also frequent these areas, potentially leaving behind infected urine. Because the bacteria thrives in moist environments such as puddles and rivers, rain may bring about an increased risk of infection.
Dogs who develop signs of leptospirosis infection can exhibit variable and vague symptoms such as fever, lethargy, and vomiting. Typically, your veterinarian will rule out other causes of these signs with lab work and x-rays. Often the presence of abnormal kidney or liver values on the lab work will prompt your veterinarian to perform tests that could confirm leptospirosis infection. Any patient suspected of having leptospirosis is handled carefully with gloves and other protective equipment to prevent the spread to humans.
The mainstay of treatment is antibiotic therapy and supportive care with some very ill dogs requiring several days of hospitalization. The earlier treatment is started, the better the dog’s chance of survival, with many patients going on to live normal lives at home. Some recovered dogs have residual kidney or liver disease which may need to be managed long term by your veterinarian. And some may need kidney dialysis until the kidneys recover.
How do I prevent disease from leptospirosis?
The good news is that there is a vaccine that can help protect your dog from serious leptospirosis infection. There are many types of leptospirosis out there and the vaccine can protect against some but not all of the harmful varieties. Typically, the “lepto” vaccine is initially given twice over a period of 3-4 weeks, then once yearly thereafter. It can even be combined with other core vaccines that your dog typically receives as a puppy or adult. WHile vaccine reactions are rare, dogs who are at risk of developing adverse vaccine reactions (severe pain at the injection site, facial swelling, hives, etc) will be typically given Benadryl or steroid injections to help alleviate/prevent these side effects.
Your veterinarian will help you decide whether your dog’s exposure warrants vaccination against leptospirosis and weigh the risks of vaccination against its benefits.
What happened to Duke?
After spending several days in the hospital, Duke started feeling better and stopped vomiting. His owners were very happy to take him home, but follow up care was needed. For several weeks, Duke needed to take antibiotic pills and have his bloodwork rechecked several times. Review of his history showed that he had never been vaccinated against leptospirosis, so he received these vaccines to help protect against future infections. Several years later, Duke still has some mild residual kidney disease requiring careful monitoring with labwork and a special diet which is easier for the kidneys to tolerate. His owners also make sure he gets his “lepto” vaccine updated every year. Duke otherwise lives a happy and normal dog life!
by Dr. Erica Chiu, DVM