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LEPTOSPIROSIS (Lepto): It’s in your backyard!

Contrary to many other things we vaccinate our patients against, Lepto is a bacterial infection rather than a virus.  Yet, vaccination is still an effective way to protect our pets against this zoonotic threat (meaning Lepto can spread from pets to people and infect all types of mammals alike).  Our practice has carried the Lepto vaccine for dogs since we opened in 2010; it has been part of our “elective” vaccine protocol, given to certain patients, rather than a “core” vaccine recommended for all dogs (ie: like Rabies and Parvo vaccines).  Our staff assesses the lifestyle of our canine patients to see what their risk assessment is.  If a dog is at high risk for contracting Lepto, we recommended vaccinating that pet.  Dogs that fit this lifestyle and are suggested to receive this elective Lepto vaccine have been ones that drink from or swim in water sources like creeks, rivers, and lakes; travel to areas where there are wild animals like deer and coyotes; hike; camp; etc.  Many of our canine patients never leave the house or their own backyard.  These patients were believed to be at a much lower risk for contracting Lepto within “the city”, so they may not have been vaccinated for that. 

However, new information and science emerges all the time in medicine, and causes us to rethink protocols and question what practices are best-medicine and safest for our patients.  Among other choices we make, we weigh the risks and benefits of preventing disease; we have to decide whether to vaccinate and protect against a likely threat given the risk of side effects, or skip the vaccine and take the risk of treating the patient if an an occurrence does happen.  Years ago, Lepto vaccines came with an increased likelihood of a vaccine reaction, especially in small dogs.  Now, the vaccine has been improved so much and the risk of side effects has become so low, it makes more sense to try to prevent against this disease rather than avoid vaccination.  The risk of the disease, and the potential for life-threatening disease from Lepto, is greater for most pets that it outweighs the risk of a side effect (which is usually minimal and rare these days) from vaccinating.

Our thinking here a KFVP has changed in regards to Lepto vaccination.  Your pet no longer has to travel to someplace else in order to be exposed to Lepto; they can pick it up right in their own back yard or the walk around the neighborhood.  “City dogs” may have just as much risk for contracting Lepto as “country dogs”.  We may not all have deer and coyotes in our backyards, but we do have the skunks, opossums, rabbits and rats that can spread Lepto to our pets.  Small dogs that drink out of puddles of rain water or run-off irrigation in our backyards can be exposed to Lepto just as much as the hiking dog that drinks from the stream or the creek when he travels outside the city limits.

Individual risk assessment of our patients remains a large part of our job, and is important for us to be able to make the best recommendations for keeping your pet happy, healthy, and protected.  We believe that there is a local risk of Leptospirosis. This risk, while still smaller than in other parts of the state, is big enough that we have transitioned this vaccination from an “elective” vaccine to a “recommended for all dogs” vaccine for any of our canine patients that have not had prior Lepto vaccine reactions.  Though we are now recommending that most dogs get vaccinated against Lepto, instead of just certain dogs like before, we understand some owners will still be inclined not to vaccinate.  Because of this, we have chosen to keep our canine “Combo” (Distemper and Parvo vaccine) and Lepto vaccines separate.  That might mean one extra “poke” for the dog getting vaccinated for Lepto, but it means no less protection for the pet that still just needs, or whose owner still just wants, the basic combo vaccination and the protection it provides.

We hope you understand our new thinking regarding Lepto and the change in our vaccination protocol for our canine patients.  If you have any questions, Dr. Kittel and the rest of our staff are available to discuss this with you, so you can make the best and most informed choice for your pet and family.  Since Leptospirosis may not be familiar to all of our clients, please consider the remainder of this newsletter; it provides more in-depth information about what Lepto is, how dogs and people can get it, how and why we treat for it, and why we vaccinate against it.  We look forward to discussing this in person with you at your dog’s next visit, when our staff makes the recommendation to vaccinate your dog against Lepto.

For  more education, further  information on Lepto is provided below…

What is leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease of dogs and other mammals that primarily affects the liver or kidneys. There are many species and serovars of Leptospira that may infect dogs, sometimes without apparently causing any signs of the disease.  Leptospira bacteria are carried mainly by rats and other rodents, but can also affect almost any mammalian species, including people.  Other animals that can carry and spread Lepto to your dogs include wildlife like deer, raccoons, skunks, opossums, and even squirrels.  Infected or recovered “carrier” dogs may act as a source of the infection as well. Dogs can become infected with Lepto by eating/drinking infected urine or contaminated garbage, but some forms of the bacteria can penetrate directly through skin. For instance, when dogs swim in contaminated water, they may become infected through their skin. The incubation period (from infection to onset of clinical signs) is usually four to twelve days following exposure to Leptospirosis bacteria. 

What are the signs of leptospirosis?

Many Leptospira infections go undetected, but other cases can cause kidney disease and/or be life-threatening.  Signs can include a high fever; lethargy and loss of appetite; small hemorrhages (bleeding spots) that occur in the mouth and on the whites of the eyes; bloody diarrhea; vomiting; jaundice (yellow color) in the mouth and whites of the eyes, or skin (in severe cases).   

Dogs that suffer from kidney failure due to Lepto are very lethargic, anorectic, and may vomit. Their breath may have a very offensive odor, and ulcers often develop on the tongue. Other signs include diarrhea, excessive drinking, excessive and frequent urination, as well as red staining of or blood in the urine. Dogs may be reluctant to move and may show abdominal discomfort. Fever is variable and temperature may actually be lower than normal in the more advanced stage.  Dogs that survive the acute renal form of Lepto may still be left with chronic kidney disease.

How is leptospirosis diagnosed?

Because the clinical signs are variable and easily confused with other diseases, testing for Leptospirosis is often not performed until other, more basic, lab work is completed. There are no infallible, definitive laboratory tests. The particular lab test selection and sample needed depends on where in the time course of infection the patient is at the time of examination.  Taking blood samples during infection and again in the recovery period is supportive of the diagnosis; newer developed PCR (polymerase chain reaction) DNA tests may also be used to detect Leptospira.

What is the treatment?

Antibiotics are reasonably effective if begun early. Most affected dogs require intensive care in the veterinary hospital.  Often, severe cases need to be transferred to a 24-hour critical-care hospital where treatment can include dialysis; this can become quite costly very quickly.  An extended course of antibiotics may be prescribed even in the recovery period to ensure that all the Leptospira organisms are cleared and the dog does not become a chronic carrier.

How can leptospirosis be prevented?

Vaccines against Leptospirosis appear to be very effective at preventing disease, as long as they are given appropriately and contain the correct serovar antigens.  To protect our canine patients who could benefit from this vaccine, we have chosen to use a superior vaccine in our hospital chosen for its effectiveness.  It contains 4 serovars instead of two, as well as has a decreased risk of side effects and/or vaccine reaction.  After a dog’s initial vaccine series of 2 boosters (done 3-4 weeks apart), your pet will require annual boosters to maintain the most effective immunity against Lepto.  In Northern California, most of the Lepto cases are seen in the winter (January and February), after our area experiences significant rain fall.  For this reason, it is has been recommended that Lepto vaccines be boostered seasonally each fall to give dogs the greatest protection against Lepto.  If vaccination at the peak of the season they are most at risk for contracting the disease isn’t possible, dogs will still benefit from and be protected from a Lepto vaccine given at any point throughout the year. 

Can the vaccine cause side-effects?

Leptospirosis used to be one of the more likely vaccines to cause a reaction. Recent updates to the Leptospirosis vaccine have greatly diminished the potential for reactions.  As with any vaccine, it may cause lethargy for a few days and possible loss of appetite. In some dogs (Miniature Dachshunds and West Highland White Terriers seem to have slightly increased risk) a more general hypersensitivity reaction may occur shortly after vaccination, leading to facial swelling, vomiting, and diarrhea. Other dogs may develop a skin rash, apparent on hairless areas. These reactions can be controlled medically, so if you are concerned call our office immediately. Any vaccine, not just Leptospirosis, carries a risk of anaphylaxis which is potentially fatal – this is extremely rare, however.


  • While unlikely, Leptospirosis can be transmitted to people.  Owners of dogs that may have the disease should avoid coming into contact with their dog’s urine, and wear rubber gloves when cleaning up any areas the dog may have soiled.  Any areas where the dog has urinated should be disinfected.  The organism is readily killed by household disinfectants or dilute bleach solution.
  • Though cats are mammals, they do not generally contract Lepto, nor do they become sick from it like dogs and people.
  • Please use the information we’ve provided and communicate with us if you think your dog should be vaccinated against Lepto.  We will be happy to check your pet’s record for their Lepto vaccination status.  

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