The number of diagnosed cases of leptospirosis in dogs across the United States has increased over recent years. This infectious disease is also a zoonotic concern. If your dog is at an increased risk for exposure to leptospirosis, have a conversation with your veterinarian about having your dog vaccinated against this potentially deadly illness.

Transmission and Effects of Leptospirosis

Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection that is carried by wildlife, including raccoons, bats, rats, skunks and opossums. The route of transmission to dogs is through the wild animal's urine. The bacteria, called leptospires, are shed in the urine, and the dog may ingest the bacteria either by drinking from a stagnant puddle or body of water or by licking its paws after stepping in these aquatic sources. A dog can also contract leptospirosis from exposure to the urine or mucous membranes of another dog that is infected with the illness. Human family members who are caring for a dog that is infected with leptospirosis are at risk for contracting the disease. While some cases of leptospirosis in dogs may be mild, other cases are life-threatening. Leptospirosis targets the liver and kidneys, and many canine survivors are left with permanent liver disease and renal failure.

Risks for Exposure

Leptospirosis was once believed to be more prevalent in certain geographic and environmental locations. Farm dogs that were exposed to cattle and other livestock that carried the disease as well as hunting dogs that tread through wooded trails and retrieved waterfowl from rivers and ponds were believed to have the greatest risk for exposure. Temperate regions with high humidity and rainfall continue to present with the highest number of cases, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. However, as more rural areas are developed and such wildlife as raccoons are adapting to living among human inhabitants, the disease has infiltrated backyards in dryer and cooler areas, such as Oregon and Colorado. To assess your dog's risk for exposure to leptospirosis, your veterinarian will consider the incidence of recent cases that have been diagnosed in your area, and he or she will also pose such questions as:

  • Does your dog play outdoors in your yard?
  • Does your dog visit local dog parks?
  • Do you take your dog along on hiking, camping, hunting or fishing expeditions?
  • Do you live in a wooded area where you have seen wild animals on your property?

If your canine companion happens to be a teacup Yorkshire terrier that eliminates on pads inside your apartment and never ventures outdoors beyond the safe confines of a carrier or your arms, then your can consider your furry friend to have a low risk for exposure.

Protection Through Vaccination

Unlike rabies and distemper vaccines, which are known as core vaccines and required for all dogs, the leptospirosis vaccine is considered a non-core vaccine that is only recommended for dogs that are at increased risk for contracting the disease. Once it has been determined that your dog's risk of exposure warrants protection, your veterinarian will recommend vaccinating your dog against leptospirosis. Adult dogs and puppies older than 12 weeks of age must initially receive the vaccine in a series of two inoculations, which are administered two to four weeks apart. One this series has been completed, revaccination is typically required once annually thereafter to maintain an optimal level of immunity. If your dog is at a particularly high risk for exposure to leptospirosis, your veterinarian may recommend a more frequent revaccination protocol of every six months.

Discuss Vaccination Concerns

When the first leptospirosis vaccines were utilized in veterinary practice, they accounted for an increased incidence of anaphylactic reactions, particularly in toy breeds. Advances in vaccine formulation have led to a newer vaccine that is created without the additives that incited many of the former vaccine reactions, offering protection against multiple strains of the disease. It is important to remember that any dog can have an allergic reaction to any substance that is injected into its body, including all medications and vaccines. If your dog has a history of reaction to any other vaccines, be sure to remind your veterinarian of the incident so that he or she may take this into consideration when helping you to weigh the risks and benefits of administering the leptospirosis vaccine.

Additional Preventative Measures

There are numerous strains of leptospirosis, eight of which affect dogs, but the leptospirosis vaccine offers protection against only four of them. Some additional preventative measures that you can take at home to protect your dog include:

  • Prevent or limit your dog's exposure to ponds, streams, rivers, lakes and other bodies of standing water.
  • Do not attract wildlife by leaving your dog's food or water bowls outside.
  • Refrain from feeding wildlife on your property
  • Supervise your dog when it ventures outdoors after a rainfall, and do not allow the dog to drink from or walk through puddles.
  • Do not allow your dog to drink stagnant water, which includes water from birdbaths.

Following these guidelines, keeping your dog current on vaccinations and staying apprised of reported cases of leptospirosis in your area will help you to reduce your dog's chances of being stricken. For more information, contact local veterinary hospitals like Centennial Animal Hospital.