Potentially fatal canine disease showing up locally

Leptospirosis being spread at higher rate by rat, rodent populations

By: Chris Jackett | C&G Newspapers | Published December 5, 2012

OAKLAND COUNTY — Not many people would be familiar with leptospirosis if they heard the term casually mentioned, but the bacterial disease is drawing concern from the state and local veterinarians, and should be on the radar for dog owners.

Most commonly transferred through rats urinating in standing water that dogs then ingest, cases of leptospirosis are easily preventable through advance vaccination, but can be fatal if not tackled appropriately. Raccoons, deer and other ground-based animals can be carriers.

“There’s multiple strains of this. It does tend to be out there in the environment,” said Dr. Jim Mast of the North Main Animal Hospital in Royal Oak. “We have always vaccinated for at least two kinds of it, but now we vaccinate for the top four types. Leptospirosis is part of our routine vaccination that we give. If they do get the disease, then we try to treat it with (penicillin-based) antibiotics.”

According to Dr. Steven L. Halstead, state veterinarian with the Michigan Department of Agriculture, leptospirosis cases have been on the rise in recent years. The disease has been around since 1916, and in Michigan since the 1970s, but the number of confirmed cases increased from 26 in 2010 to 61 in 2011, combining for 39 deaths.

“We are seeing an ongoing concern with leptospirosis,” Halstead said. “There’s more moisture around. Till we get a freeze, that tends to be the case. Without solid freezes, and with the drought this summer, the animals are drawn to the water and come closer together. The rodents can carry it without any ill effect.”

In 2012, Halstead said there have been 45 confirmed cases so far, including 10 in Oakland County and 12 each in Macomb and Wayne counties. The state hasn’t specifically recorded death tallies, but Royal Oak resident John Winters said there have been seven near the 12 Mile and Woodward area, plus others in Birmingham.

Both Mast and Halstead said misconceptions from outside the industry have led to some of the problems. There is the potential for a dog to have an allergic reaction to a leptospirosis vaccine, but the alternative of contracting the disease could be fatal.

“There’s a lot of information out there not coming from the vet and they’re asking their vets not to give the vaccine,” Halstead said. “The first thing they should consider is vaccinating their pet. If there’s standing water on the property or where you take your dog, avoid it. Flowing water is not as big of a risk.”

Halstead said if a pet has leptospirosis, only one family member should deal with the pet and the family should be careful to clean any cloth surfaces the pet sits on. Mast said humans could potentially contract the disease through the dog’s urine if not careful.

“It is typically water where they’re going to pick it up. It’s a bacteria disease. It causes kidney and/or liver disease,” Mast said of the effects on dogs. “It’s potentially transferable to the people. If we had a dog with leptospirosis, then you’d have to be careful to (clean up after it).”

Dehydration, vomit, possible blood in the urine, kidneys that stop producing urine and a fever around 103 degrees are all symptoms of leptospirosis, Halstead said.

“The incubation period can be several days,” Halstead said. “The pet is suddenly very sick. They’re not interested in food or water or playing around. They generally have a high fever.”

Although the outlook for many pets with leptospirosis is not very positive, some can overcome the bacterial disease on their own or with the aid of antibiotics.

Mast said a leptospirosis-only vaccine costs about $20-$30 and needs to be done annually, although leptospirosis is one of three vaccines given as part of a cocktail injection every two years, along with distemper and parvo. Dogs receiving that vaccine still need to get the leptospirosis-only vaccine during the in between years.

For more information on leptospirosis, visit www.michigan.gov/dnr.