Recently there has been great concern about the increase in leptospirosis infections reported in urban areas nationwide. It’s difficult to escape the news on TV, newspaper, and social media. And yes, dogs infected with leptospirosis are common in affluent and not-so-affluent urban areas in Miami.
But why is leptospirosis suddenly reemerging? To better understand it, let’s start with the basics: Leptospira is a bacteria that can cause disease of the liver and kidney, leading to permanent damage, or even death, if not treated in time. Because it infects humans and animals, it is considered a zoonotic diseases. It is transmitted by coming in contact with the urine of infected animals.
In the past, leptospirosis was considered a disease transmitted by wildlife in rural areas, however this has changed due to a number of factors. First, the urbanization of rural areas has displaced wildlife, pushing them into suburban areas and backyards where they can infect us and our pets. Secondly, an increase in our planet’s average temperature has led to an increase in hurricanes and floods. Natural disasters like these bring people in contact with water and soil contaminated with urine of infected animals. Leptospira can live longer in urine mixed with soil and water, as opposed to living in urine by itself. As the bacteria’s chances for survival increases, so does the risk of infection to people and animals. For this reason, we see more cases of leptospirosis infections after natural disasters. Last but not least, pet owners are not consistently vaccinating their dogs against leptospirosis, so there is no “herd immunity” against this disease (“herd immunity” refers to a situation where resistance to the spread of a disease is achieved by vaccinating at least 85 percent of the pets in a given area).
Leptospirosis is transmitted to dogs mainly when they come in contact with infected urine from raccoons, foxes, possums, rats, and mice. It is more commonly seen in hot, rainy seasons (our spring and summer in Miami) when dogs are thirsty and drink from infected stagnated waters, or when they step on infected waters and then lick their paws. The bacteria can enter the body through the mouth, wounds, mucous membranes, eyelids, and even can penetrate unbroken skin that has been softened by prolonged contact with water (i.e. through our feet if we have been walking in a flooded area). Cats can also get infected with leptospirosis, but it is less common. There is no vaccine available to protect humans or cats.
The signs of leptospirosis infection are non-specific: vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, fever, bleeding from the nose or rectum, weight loss, jaundice, renal and/or liver disease, amongst other symptoms. There are reliable diagnostic tests and effective treatments if an infected dog is taken for medical care early on in the disease process. Do not hesitate to look for medical care immediately if leptospirosis is a possibility. And most of all, remember that this is a preventable disease. Even though the most popular vaccine protects against only four of the many serovars (variations) of the bacteria, it does offer protection from the most common ones. If you live in an area with lush gardens, with an occasional fox, raccoon, or rodent visitor, or you live in a flood zone during hurricane season, then your dog and your family have a high risk of exposure to leptospirosis.
Vaccinate your dog; it’s not only your responsibility as a pet parent, but also a matter of public safety. Leptospirosis is in Miami to stay.
Dr Marta Sanchez-Emden is the founder of the Animal Health and Rehab Center in South Miami. She has been practicing Veterinary Medicine in Miami for over 20 years. As a Certified Veterinary Journalist, she is the resident veterinarian for various national TV shows. She authored the book “CHIHUAHUAS: How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend,” available on Amazon. Follow her at youtube.com/ahrcvet, Facebook.com/dr.sanchezemden, Twitter @DrMartavet, and www.animalhealthrehab.com.