By Deborah Hilcove
It’s invisible and it’s potentially deadly. It’s leptospirosis and Valley veterinarians are warning pet owners about this dangerous and highly contagious disease.
A global threat, leptospirosis commonly attacks mammals like cattle, sheep and goats, then passes the disease along to humans. Here in metropolitan Phoenix, however, the bacterial outbreak has mainly affected dogs. Since February, 2016, more than 60 cases—located primarily in Scottsdale and Fountain Hills, but also scattered in Gilbert, Avondale and Tempe—have been confirmed and the count is ongoing, according to the Maricopa Health Department. Because of contagion issues, confirmed cases of leptospirosis must be reported to the national Center for Disease Control.
Although normally a dry desert area, recent rains in the Valley have produced muddy ground and standing puddles where the organisms live. An animal drinking the contaminated water, swimming or walking through it, may contract the disease, since the corkscrewlike bacteria burrow into the skin, move into the bloodstream and settle in the liver and kidneys.
Dr. Evan Ware, veterinarian and director of University Animal Hospital in Tempe, says that “We are not sure of the exact source of this infectious bacterial agent, but wildlife such as rodents and livestock typically are the reservoir. Animals shedding this disease contaminate water from bacteria passed through their urine.”
Once an animal has contracted the disease, symptoms include extreme thirst, increased urination, bloody urine and stools, jaundiced skin and eyes, lack of appetite, possible fever and chills, and lethargy. To confirm a diagnosis, a veterinarian will order a special blood and urine panel, as well as an antibody titer to measure the progress of the infection. A course of Doxycycline or penicillin will likely be ordered.
“Antibiotics and supportive care for the kidneys are the two key elements to treatment,” says Dr. Ware. “This infection can cause kidney failure, so fluids to combat dehydration, in addition to the proper antibiotics, are critical for the patient’s survival. If treatment is initated quickly and properly, there is a great chance the patient will survive this infection, but the key is early recognition.”
If an animal is “at high risk,” continues Dr. Ware, “such as dogs frequenting dog parks, boarding facilities, hiking or field or farm dogs,” the owner should consider requesting the leptospirosis vaccine. He continues, “Remember, vaccines do not prevent exposure or infection. They prepare the body to fight the infection quickly and effectively.” Because of heightened risks, some kennels and boarding facilities are currently requiring proof of the vaccination which is administered annually.
Other precautions include the avoidance of communal drinking water, such as might be provided at a dog park or a daycare facility. Additionally, pet parents should be careful walking their dogs on golf courses or along the canals where infected coyotes and bobcats might have contaminated the waterways.
Even dogs that are restricted to a fenced backyard can be at risk. Rodents—especially raccoons around lake developments and roof rats around citrus trees—may urinate into pets’ water bowls left outside. When the family pet drinks from the dish, it will likely become infected.
Arizona’s State Veterinarian, Dr. Peter Mundschenk, suggests that owners wash their hands thoroughly after walking a pet. It’s also wise to wear latex gloves when cleaning up after pets. If pets accidentally urinate in the house, the area may be cleaned with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water. Bedding, towels and clothing will be disinfected with regular hot water laundering.
Once a dog is diagnosed with leptospirosis, contact with other dogs should be avoided for at least six weeks post-antibiotic treatment. If it’s necessary to kennel or board the dog, the facility should be notified so special precautions may be taken.
Leptospirosis is a “zoonotic” disease, one that may be transmitted from animals to humans, with the bacteria entering through the nose, eyes, mouth or open cuts. Not only are the owners of an infected animal at risk, but also those who enjoy sports in and around unchlorinated water—boating, canoeing, fishing, hiking and hunting. Other people at risk include landscapers, sewage workers, refuse collectors, farmers and livestock breeders. Infants and children, whose immune systems are not fully developed, need to be especially careful.
In humans, the disease typically presents with flu-like symptoms, ranging from mild to life-threatening. If the disease is suspected, a primary care physician should be consulted, and most likely, a course of antibiotics will be prescribed.
At the personal level, Dr. Ware stresses the importance of maintaining “excellent hygiene practices and avoiding any contact with the urine.” On a global scale, however, the International Leptospirosis Society and the World Health Organization is creating and coordinating a network of research laboratories and internet databases to study, control and potentially eliminate this life-threatening disease.