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Leptospirosis: An Emerging Virus

imageIn October of 2014, Baltimore was named the ninth “rattiest city” in the US.  Those of us who live in the city were not surprised.  Canton, with it’s high number of restaurants and dumpsters, as well as plenty of industrial and maritime property, certainly helps contribute to the rat problem.

Rodents are destructive and can spread disease.  Dogs are at particular risk for a disease called leptospirosis.

Leptospirosis, commonly referred to as “lepto,” is a bacterial disease caused by a spiral shaped bacterium called a spirochete.  There are many subtypes to this bacteria, called serovars, and at least four of them cause disease in dogs.

The primary host of the leptospirosis bacterium are rats, mice and moles.  Many other mammals, including dogs and humans, can carry and transmit the disease as secondary hosts.  Infected rodents shed the bacteria in their urine, where it remains infective as long as the urine is moist.  The incidence of leptospirosis is directly related to rainfall, making it more common in temperate months.  Dogs that spend the majority of their time indoors can contract the bacteria from exposure to urine from rodents in the house.  Bacteria enter the body either by being swallowed or through abraded skin.

In most dogs, the infection will clear on it’s own.  Some dogs will develop mild flu-like symptoms, such as fever, loss of appetite and lethargy.  In serious cases, patients exhibit jaundice, coagulation problems or bleeding from the mouth or bloody diarrhea.  Liver and/or kidney damage are common in advanced cases.

Treatment includes hospitalization for IV fluids, antibiotics and supportive care.

Following recovery, patients can continue to shed the bacteria in their urine for up to a year.  Humans can contract this dangerous bacterial disease as well, making leptospirosis an important public health issue.

Considering the dense rat population in Baltimore City, as well as the chances of owners contracting the disease from their infected dogs, vaccination is vital to consider for all city dwelling dogs.

The leptospirosis vaccine is available in two forms.  Some brands of distemper vaccine also combine vaccination with lepto.  This vaccine is commonly abbreviated as DHLPP, and it only confers protection against two of the four serovars that usually cause disease in dogs.

A separate vaccination for leptospirosis only is also available.  This version confers protection against all four serovars.  The initial series consists of two injections, given one month apart.  Following this series, dogs are vaccinated once yearly with their other preventive vaccinations.  Due to the better coverage of the individual vaccine, as well as the three year vaccination protocol for distemper, BSAH uses the individual four serovar vaccine.

Other ways to prevent infection include removing and preventing rodents from entering the home, properly containing trash to avoid attracting rodents, and removing standing water.

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