Nearly every day at the East State Veterinary Clinic, 3319 E. State Blvd., Dr. Stacey Andrist vaccinates dogs against heartworm, parvovirus, distemper and rabies.
Those diseases are relatively well-known among dog owners as serious ailments. But Andrist also recommends vaccinating area dogs against another condition that’s not so familiar – though neglecting to vaccinate against it can have serious health consequences for dogs and their owners.
Dogs that get a bacterial infection known as leptospirosis risk kidney or liver failure and even death, Andrist says. And the animals can pass infections to people.
While leptospirosis is not new and not common, its infection pattern has changed in recent years, and the condition is raising more red flags among area veterinarians.
“This used to be a disease of hunting dogs – these were dogs out in the country, or with guys out hunting, that were coming in contact with wildlife,” Andrist says. “You didn’t see it often in city dogs because it comes from a bacteria carried by skunks and possums and raccoons and deer and rodents.”
Not any more.
“The problem is that as we’ve grown as a city, we’ve invaded wildlife spaces, and lately we’ve diagnosed a couple of cases in dogs that were just neighborhood dogs and were never out in the country,” she says.
So now she recommends all dogs get vaccinated.
“It’s about 100 percent preventable,” she says of the disease. “So why wouldn’t you try to prevent it?”
Andrist says the way the bacteria are transmitted carries a bit of an “ew” factor. They live in the urine of wild animals and, sometimes, farm animals.
Dogs often get infected by exposure to contaminated water – puddles, ponds, lakes and streams – through ingestion or contact with mucous membranes or broken skin.
Other routes of exposure include coming in contact with infected urine in food, bedding or areas the dog frequents. If a dog is bitten by or ingests tissue from an infected animal, that dog also can get sick.
Leptospirosis can be easily treated with antibiotics if caught early enough, and a preventive vaccine has existed for years, says Dr. Alan Fox of Westside Animal Hospital, 4550 Illinois Road.
But the first vaccine didn’t protect against all the strains of the bacteria, he says, and some dog owners came to believe vaccination didn’t work.
“The first case I saw was only a couple of years ago, and it was with one of the doctors here, in his own dog, that he had taken to a nature preserve,” Fox says. “The dog had been vaccinated, but the vaccine didn’t cover all the strains.”
But now there are better vaccines, often referred to as “four-ways” because they cover the four most common strains of the bacteria. There’s also an even newer form of four-way, says Dr. Amy Totten, an internal medicine specialist at Northeast Indiana Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Hospital, 5818 Maplecrest Road.
The vaccine is given to puppies in two doses, two weeks apart, and needs a yearly booster, Totten says. The same is true for older dogs who have never been vaccinated, she says; otherwise, dogs need only one shot yearly. The vaccines cost about $16, vets say.
Totten says area vets are testing more ill dogs for leptospirosis. Infections typically occur in warm and humid months of summer and early fall, veterinarians say. Outbreaks also tend to occur after flooding because the bacteria thrive in warm, stagnant water.
Dogs with leptospirosis often have vague symptoms, including lethargy, weakness from joint or muscle pain, diarrhea, fever, vomiting and discharge from the nose or eyes. Totten recommends that if such symptoms persist for more than three days, get the dog to a doctor.
A telltale symptom of kidney involvement is unusually frequent – or lack of – urination, Totten says. Liver involvement can cause jaundice symptoms, including yellowing of the eyes, skin or gums.
Advanced cases require hospitalization with intravenous and oral antibiotics and support, she says. Mild cases may be treated with antibiotics alone, and testing and/or preventive treatments are usually suggested for other dogs in the household, she says.
Infected people, Totten says, might have unnoticeable or mild symptoms.
“In humans, it can actually vary from just a low-grade fever to mild influenza-like symptoms. But liver and kidney failure can also occur in humans,” Totten says.
In developed countries, the most frequent route is exposure to contaminated water, she adds.
Human-to-human transmission is rare, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC advises that people wear disposable gloves if they are going to touch urine, feces, blood or tissue of infected or suspect animals or anything suspected of being contaminated.
The emergency hospital where Totten works treats about 10 dogs a year, she says.
“Besides kidney and liver failure, there can be platelet or lung involvement, and some animals do not survive. And that’s absolutely why I recommend vaccination,” she says. “I’ve seen what this (disease) can do.”