Expert Tips: Leptospirosis and your Philadelphia dog

For pet owners, warming weather means the joys of time outdoors, but with outdoor activities come a host of health dangers. Flea and tick infestations, along with the diseases these pests bring, are usually at the top of the list when it comes to owners’ canine health priorities. But veterinarians in the Philadelphia area are warning owners to protect their dogs from an often ignored disease: Leptospirosis.

Leptospirosis—or Lepto, as its frequently called by vets—is a bacterial disease that spreads through the urine of infected rodents like rats. Dogs most often contract the disease by drinking from or passing through water contaminated by an infected rat’s urine, according to the American Veterinary Medical Foundation. If left untreated, the disease can cause kidney and liver failure.

“A dog can get Lepto simply from passing through contaminated stagnant water like a puddle and licking its paws later,” Dr. Cara Horowitz of the Philadelphia Veterinary Speciality & Emergency Center (VSEC) said.

Dr. Horowitz spent several years working in New York City as a veterinarian where she saw countless Leptospirosis cases. Often, her patients’ owners had never heard of the disease before she told them their dogs were dying of it. She said that, for a disease with a readily available vaccine, such deaths are entirely preventable.

Dogs that spend time outdoors near warm stagnant water with any likelihood of rodent activity are at risk for contracting Leptospirosis, Dr. Horowitz said. That includes dogs that do little more than a twice-daily walk down a Philadelphia street. That’s because, according to several reports, Philadelphia has some of the highest rat infestation rates of any American cities.

Dogs outside of urban areas are at risk, too. Infected rats and other hosts, like skunks, which rarely show signs of the disease, can deposit the bacteria in slow moving water in the wilderness. The bacteria can also survive in soil. This makes popular destinations for dogs and their owners like parks and hiking trails a likely place for Lepto contraction, according to Dr. Horowitz.

If your dog is out of sorts, “Lepto is  something to keep in mind,” she said. “This is a disease with a lot of different presenting signs, and a lot of dogs are susceptible.”

The symptoms of Leptospirosis can take nearly a week to appear and include lethargy, excessive drinking, and vomiting, but because of the potential for resulting kidney and liver failure, symptoms are wide ranging. There is no single telltale sign of Lepto, Dr. Horowitz said. Instead, it’s up to owners to monitor their dogs’ activity and changes in health. If a dog at risk for Leptospirosis begins showing signs of wavering health, take the pet to its veterinarian or an animal emergency care provider. Even if it isn’t Lepto, such symptoms are usually worth a trip to the vet anyway.

Also worth a trip to the vet is the Leptospirosis vaccine. The vaccine, Dr. Horowitz said, is not a live one, so there is no chance for a dog to contract the disease because of the vaccination. Owners may want to consider the benefits of a yearly vaccine in comparison to the cost of treatment for the disease, like expensive dialysis support for kidney failure, the outcome for many dogs with Lepto. And that doesn’t include the emotional cost of losing a pet.

She said that when one dog in a household with multiple pets is diagnosed, veterinarians will commonly treat all of the dogs, but not the cats. The disease is extremely uncommon among cats. And while humans can get the disease, dog-to-human transfer is almost entirely unheard of.

Dr. Cara Horowitz, DVM, DACVIM, is a veterinary specialist in internal medicine. She currently works at the Philadelphia Veterinary Speciality & Emergency Center. She recently gave a lecture on Leptospirosis to veterinarians in the Philadelphia area.

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