What  is leptospirosis?

Dr. Becker writes “It’s important to understand that while leptospirosis is not a new disease, the number of cases being reported is likely increasing because humans are encroaching more and more into natural habitats—which means family pets are coming in contact with wildlife known to harbor the bacteria. In addition, we also have better diagnostics these days with which to diagnose the disease.” So while several sources are reporting there is in fact an uptick in the number of cases this year (likely due to a mild winter) this is not something we should fear as a new epidemic. But it is something we as pet owners should all be aware of so we know how to best prevent infection and how to notice early symptoms.

Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection transmitted through urine that contaminates water sources and can remain potentially infectious in soil for up to six months. Dogs generally become infected from puddles, ponds, etc.—the bacteria thrive in stagnant water. It is true that if untreated leptospirosis can become fatal. Symptoms include fever, muscle pain, vomiting and diarrhea, loss of appetite, lethargy, depression, and blood in the urine. The disease primarily affects the kidneys and liver, which can result in jaundice (yellowing of the skin and mucous membranes—in dogs most noticeable in the eyes). All this said, many dogs with mild infections show no symptoms at all and recover on their own without medical treatment. Leptospirosis is primarily a risk for young dogs or dogs with weakened immune systems.

There is a vaccine for leptospirosis, but it is relatively weak, short-acting, and does not protect against all of the causes of the infection. The best way to reduce the risk of infection is to keep your pet away from slow-moving or stagnant water, like ponds or puddles. But Dr. Becker seems to dismiss complete paranoia: “I have a warm, stagnant cesspool of a pond that wildlife love to come and visit, and my dogs swim in every day during the summer. I’m pretty sure my own pack has been exposed to lepto bacteria, but because I keep their immune systems healthy and stay very alert for any symptoms of infection, I’m not overly concerned.”

In other words, be cautious, but not to an extreme: if you’re concerned about leptospirosis you may take extra care to keep your dog from walking through puddles, but if they happen to step in a puddle don’t immediately assume your dog is at risk. Just be on the lookout for early signs of fever, blood in urine, etc., and take your pet to the vet immediately if alarming symptoms arise. Leptospirosis is absolutely treatable once a diagnosis is made.

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