Always Lurking but Rarely Diagnosed……….. Leptospirosis is a Real Threat in New England

He was supposed to be around for a long time well into their retirement. But when the four year old terrier stopped eating and was listless for several days, the owners knew something was very wrong with Duffy. He was admitted to our hospital for exam, blood work and to treat his dehydration. Within minutes we suspected Leptospirosis, an occasionally seen and always present bacteria that can affect the kidneys and liver in a mortal fashion. In spite of aggressive supportive care, Duffy continued to decline. His kidney levels were extremely high and around the clock fluid therapy failed to lower the waste levels in his body. Within barely three days he became semi comatose and when the Leptospirosis test results came back positive, the owner felt it was time to say goodbye.

Tragic? Absolutely. Uncommon? Not exactly. Leptospirosis is an ever present risk in Massachusetts particularly in areas of wetlands, woods and among wildlife. It is a disease that has been around for a long time but is often ignored in light of more recent diseases such as Lyme Disease and Anaplasmosis. But while these diseases can be serious, they rarely result in death. Leptospirosis, unfortunately, is a different story. While wildlife such as skunks, rats and squirrels can becomes infected with the bacteria, it often results in minor health problems for them but becomes hidden in their kidneys. At this point they become “shedding reservoirs” for the disease. While they may not pass this bacteria constantly it can contaminate ponds, streams and other areas that domestic pets frequent. The bacteria can enter your dog, and rarely cats, through mucous membranes as well as cuts and scratches. Once infected, many pets display only minor illness before the disease runs its course. In others, sadly, the bacteria finds protection from the immune response in kidney tubules. There is very little time before one has to instigate treatment with antibiotics or Leptospirosis can destroy the kidneys. That was the case with Duffy. By the time the owners realized that he was seriously ill it was too late. Duffy’s kidneys failed.

So how does one avoid this sad scenario? First, if your pet is in a high risk area which is mainly anywhere in New England, vaccinate your pet. Not just any vaccine, however. Many combination canine vaccines have a single leptospirosis strain (serovar) that is not typical of the serovar we see in this area. Speak to your vet and ensure that the vaccine she/he is using is appropriate. The most common serovars that infect pets are Pomona, Grippothyphosa, Canicola and Icterohaemmorhagia. Before vaccinating your pet ensure that your vet is vaccinating for all of these strains. Avoid feeding wildlife in your yard. Putting food out may attract rats and other scavengers from nearby. These animals could be carriers for the disease. Finally, whenever your pet shows any signs of illness, call your vet. It may not always require a visit but a conversation is warranted. Had the above been followed by Duffy’s owner, this story would have had a far happier ending.