By Christie Long
Recently, I received an email from an owner whose three dogs had become ill with leptospirosis. None of the dogs were vaccinated against it, and they routinely hiked in several popular areas around the Poudre River, including the Hewlett Gulch and Grey Rock trails.
Of the three dogs, one was significantly more ill than the other two, showing signs on blood work of moderate kidney failure. The reader had not previously known about the risks of contracting leptospirosis (often abbreviated “lepto”) and suggested that I cover the topic.
Because we recommend that any dog that goes outside or has contact with other dogs be vaccinated against lepto, we spend a lot of time at my practice educating owners about it.
But there are still dog owners out there who don’t know about lepto; and because the disease can be so serious and people can contract the disease from their dogs, the message bears repeating.
Dogs usually get lepto by encountering urine previously left by wildlife. Many species of wildlife common to Colorado can be carriers for lepto, including foxes, coyotes and raccoons. All it takes is contact between the urine and the dog’s mucous membranes, which usually occurs with a good sniff of urinated-upon vegetation, and the bacteria are in the dog’s bloodstream. The part of the body affected depends upon the strain of lepto the animal contracts. Currently there are six known strains of lepto, and different species of wildlife pass along different strains.
To an owner, lepto resembles a lot of other maladies. Dogs become lethargic, pass up food, and may drink more water and subsequently urinate more. Vomiting and diarrhea can occur also. Lepto gets missed by veterinarians because even lab work results can be misleading. Once I diagnosed a puppy with lepto that had only a persistent fever and dilute urine. Testing for the disease has become easier , with labs now being able to detect the organisms in urine or blood in a relatively timely fashion. But the veterinarian must have a high degree of suspicion and test for the disease if symptoms and lab results suggest it.
If there’s anything positive about lepto, it’s that once identified, treatment is fairly straightforward, and affected animals can typically recover completely. Treatment needs to start early to be maximally effective, however, and again, this means that veterinarians have to be looking for it. Animals need hospitalization with intravenous fluids and antibiotics in the early stages of the disease. Once the dog is feeling better, it can go home with oral antibiotics to completely extinguish the organisms.
Christie Long is a veterinarian at the VCA Animal Hospital in Fort Collins, CO. Long left her job in software sales in 2000 to travel for 13 months. Along the way, she was touched by the plight of the animals she saw and somewhere in the Nepalese Himalayas she vowed to return to school to become a veterinarian. While she often finds end-of-life situations heart-wrenching, she considers herself blessed to be called upon as a trusted adviser to families during difficult times. Dr. Long’s family includes her husband and travel partner, Wiley, their 5-year-old son, Wiley IV, their dogs Pancake and Gizmo and cats Sneaky and Sidh.