This story was updated Monday morning to include feedback from Dr. David McKenna of West Lake Forest Animal Hospital
By Adrienne Fawcett
At least three suburban dogs died last week after being infected with Leptospirosis, a bacteria that dogs can come in contact with by simply sniffing the urine of infected wildlife in parks, back yards or city sidewalks — anywhere a squirrel or rodent passes through.
“Lepto” is not new and it is often more prevalent in the fall, but it is noteworthy because the recent infections have been more severe, said Dr. Melissa Pales, who specializes in internal medicine at Veterinarian Specialty Center in Buffalo Grove, which treated four – possibly five — cases of Leptospirosis last week. Three of the infected dogs died on their own or were euthanized.
Mac Fletcher of Lake Bluff was one of those recent cases. On October 9, Cindy and Tom Fletcher and their son Austin noticed something was up with their big, normally exuberant Golden Retriever when he didn’t eat his dinner, which was unusual because Mac normally ate so fast that he’d empty the bowl moments after it was placed in front of him.
A few hours later he seemed lethargic, which was also unusual – but not alarming. Workers had installed a new roof on their home that day, and the family thought maybe Mac was just tired from all the pounding. He didn’t seem all that sick – just tired, said Cindy.
But the Fletchers now wish they had been more concerned about those early, subtle changes in their dog’s behavior, because less than five days later on the afternoon of October 14, they faced a wrenching decision: euthanize their beloved pup, who was only four years old, or watch him die of organ failure due to what veterinarians suspect was an acute case of Leptospirosis infection. They chose to have him put to sleep and they’re sharing their story with GazeboNews so that other pet owners can perhaps avoid a similar fate.
“I would hate to think this would happen to another dog,” said Cindy. “If your dog seems a little lethargic – just be proactive and call your vet.”
What is Leptospirosis? Here is some basic information provided by Cathy Mordini of Veterinary Specialty Center:
Leptospirosis is caused by spiral-shaped bacteria called leptospires and is carried by cattle, rats, raccoons, skunks and other wildlife and is spread through their urine. Dogs come into contact with leptospira in infected water, soil or mud and may become infected by sniffing the urine or by wading, swimming or drinking infected water. Dog parks, nature preserves or any area where there is wildlife could present a risk. Lepto can be passed on to humans through exposure to infected urine.
About that later point: At a time when the Ebola virus is making headlines around the world, how worried about Lepto should humans be?
Dr. David McKenna of Animal Hospital of West Lake Forest said Leptospirosis is zoonotic, meaning it can spread to humans. “Common carriers in our area are raccoons, deer, rats and rodents, and skunks. Transmission can occur via direct host to host contact, or indirectly through urine in a contaminated environment. Due to increasing wildlife populations there is greater risk of exposure,” he said. “An important note is that infected dogs can spread the disease to their owners through exposure to their urine. It is important to be very careful to wash hands well after cleaning up a urine accident.”
For the Fletchers, this meant having to wear masks and gloves when they said their final goodbyes to Mac before he was put to sleep. “We were told not to kiss him, not to touch his face,” said Cindy.
Dr. Pales said that like dogs, humans can be infected with “Lepto” if they come in contact with the urine of an infected animal. And that in humans, as with dogs, “Lepto” infection can cause flu-like symptoms and is treated with an antibiotic. “So if a person starts to exhibit flu-like symptoms, they need to let their doctor know if they may have been exposed to Leptospirosis from an animal,” she said. (She also said cats can get Leptospirosis and that they may become carriers, but they don’t get sick the way dogs do.)
Treatment for Leptospirosis — for both humans and canines — is through supportive care and antibiotics. The most common effective antibiotic is Doxycycline or Minocycline, said Dr. McKenna.
What are the symptoms?
Dogs with the disease usually present with kidney or liver related symptoms, said Dr. McKenna., including increased thirst and urination, lethargy, vomiting, and diarrhea.
The Veterinary Care Center fact sheet on Leptospirosis described the canine symptoms as follows:
Lepto primarily affects the kidneys and/or liver. Dogs generally start showing symptoms 4 to 14 days after exposure with a fever sometimes present in the early stages. Along with sudden fever and illness, other symptoms include loss of appetite, vomiting, lethargy and muscle pain. A dog’s gums or whites of his or her eyes may also become yellow. Kidney failure and or liver failure may occur in severe cases.
Diagnosis & Treatment
Lepto is treatable with antibiotics if it’s diagnosed and treated quickly. If lepto is suspected, dog owners should contact their veterinarian or bring their dog to an emergency veterinarian for testing and treatment. The recommended diagnostic test for leptospirosis remains serology with the microscopic agglutination test (MAT). Urine/blood PCR is also recommended concurrently with MAT testing in order to obtain an early diagnosis, as PCR is a highly sensitive test.
But as the Fletchers found, the symptoms can easily be misunderstood. For example, Mac turned down dinner on Thursday night but ate breakfast the following morning, perhaps with less gusto than usual, but he ate it nonetheless. He was lethargic over the weekend but still went on walks with Tom to Mawman Park across the street from their home. As usual, he slept in Austin’s room on Saturday night.
But by Sunday night, he seemed to be having trouble urinating, and overnight he started vomiting bile.
They took him first thing Monday to Animal Hospital of West Lake Forest, which conducted numerous tests, gave him penicillin and tried to rehydrate him so that he would produce urine. But by late afternoon on Monday, it appeared Mac’s kidneys were shutting down. The office referred Mac to Veterinary Specialty Center, and the Fletchers told their daughter Abby to come home from Augustana College in Rock Island, where she is a freshman. Mac’s condition worsened and by 10 p.m. on Monday, the VCC veterinarians informed the Fletchers that his kidneys were indeed shutting down, and his liver was damaged as well.
“They brought up Leptospirosis, but there was not a clean test to say what it was,” said Cindy. “And we were really puzzled, because he doesn’t leave the yard. There’s no standing water, and he has an invisible fence, and he won’t cross it.”
Another puzzling thing: Mac had been vaccinated for Lepto last November.
Dr. Pales on October 19 told GazeboNews that the vaccine for Leptospirosis doesn’t provide 100% protection. She explained there are several strains of the bacteria and that the vaccine protects against four of them. “It’s like the flu vaccine in people; it’s not 100%. But if dogs do get Lepto, the symptoms are usually not as severe if they have been vaccinated. Unfortunately that was not the case for Mac.”
Is there anyway to prevent Leptospirosis?
“Any dog who goes outside is susceptible because Lepto can be carried by so many different wildlife. Even little dogs who live in high rise apartments and only walk on sidewalks can be exposed to it,” said Dr. Pales. “You’d have to live in a bubble to prevent all the diseases that dogs can get just by stepping outside.”
So how do we protect our dogs?
“Just be vigilant for symptoms,” she said. “If they are lethargic, not eating, vomiting, experiencing diarrhea —anything abnormal, just get them checked out. Even if it’s not Leptospirosis, they might have something else that needs treatemtent.”
The Fletchers wish they had taken Mac to the vet earlier, but Dr. Pales said they did everything they could have done for Mac: “Mac’s family brought him in in the appropriate length of time, but his disease progressed really quickly. Some dogs, we can put them on dialysis. But that wasn’t possible with Mac, he just had all the bad things happen and there was nothing that could be done for him. It wasn’t in any way their fault.”