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Photograph: iStock

Text: Tarek Abu Sham

If your dog spends time outside, particularly swimming in ponds or rolling around in the mud, you will do well to really consider a leptospirosis vaccine.

What is Leptospirosis?

While found worldwide, leptospirosis is more common in some areas than others, and not all strains are associated with disease in every species.

While not all cases are severe, leptospirosis can be deadly, especially if it is not caught quickly. It tends to be relatively uncommon in cats, but dogs are prone to infection. It has also been detected in cows, goats, horses, and a variety of wildlife. Wildlife is a significant vector for infection, but cows may be a common host in agricultural regions. Unfortunately, humans may also develop an infection after exposure.

The bacteria are usually transmitted through urine, but they can accumulate in water run-off and ponds. While early symptoms may be flu-like signs in people, dogs can develop urinary issues, diarrhoea, depression, and lethargy. The bacteria generally causes damage to the kidneys and liver, so some people notice jaundice in their pet's sclera or gums. Some dogs may actually recover from their initial infection but retain low numbers of bacteria within their kidneys: these dogs may actually become carriers and spread the infection to other pets and people.

"It is essential to keep in mind that the vaccines do not protect against every strain, and they may not prevent disease completely, instead of limiting its severity."

It can be tricky to diagnose your dog because leptospirosis infection because it doesn't show up on routine diagnostic tests. More concrete diagnostic testing is available but is less widespread. For example, there are SNAP tests that your veterinarian may have in the hospital that can detect leptospirosis in many cases, but many veterinarians need to submit a sample for testing to a diagnostic laboratory. DNA PCR testing is one method, but it is ineffective if your dog has already started on antibiotics.

Treatment for Leptospirosis

While Leptospirosis can be treated with antibiotics, pets with a severe infection may already have organ damage that cannot be reversed. Therefore, hospitalisation with IV fluid therapy and care is needed in many acute cases.

Dogs may need to be treated for both acute infections and carrier states. Typically penicillin antibiotics are used for initial treatment. Complete the entire course of therapy that is prescribed.

If your dog has been diagnosed with leptospirosis, you need to keep them away from other animals and ensure no one gets infected while they are treated. You should handle your pet with disposable gloves and a mask, as this bacteria can sometimes be transmitted when it is aerosolised. In addition, anywhere they urinate or defecate should be carefully disinfected with specific chemicals labelled for destroying the bacteria.

Vaccinating for Leptospirosis and preventing infection

If Leptospirosis is prevalent in your area, your veterinarian will likely recommend vaccination as a means of helping prevent disease in your dog. They typically need to be boostered annually. However, it is essential to keep in mind that the vaccines do not protect against every strain, and they may not prevent disease completely, instead of limiting its severity.

A practical method of prevention is rodent control. Because your dog may be exposed to rats or mice urine, keeping populations of these animals down is essential. If you detect evidence of a rodent problem around your home, work with an exterminator on safe and effective ways to protect your pets.

You may also consider limiting your pet from playing in areas with water accumulation, such as rivers, ponds, and even puddles. Going swimming in a pool is generally a safer proposition.

Leptospirosis can be a scary diagnosis, but you can do your part to help protect your pet. First, discuss your pet's lifestyle with your veterinarian to determine if vaccinating is a good idea, particularly in young dogs or immunocompromised ones. It can quickly become part of your pet's routine preventative care.

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