University of Florida veterinarians have reported a recent spike in leptospirosis cases in dogs treated at UF’s Small Animal Hospital. This emerging bacterial disease affects multiple animal species as well as humans. “In a typical year, we see almost no cases of leptospirosis in dogs at UF,” says Carsten Bandt, DVM, an assistant professor of emergency medicine and critical care at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine, in a university release. Bandt serves as chief of the hospital’s emergency and critical care service. “We have now seen 12 cases, just within the past six months.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t collect data on dogs, although the information may be reportable in animals in some states, says Christopher Cox, a health communications specialist with the CDC, in the UF release.
Cox says between 100 and 200 human cases of leptospirosis are identified annually in the U.S., with around half of those occurring in Hawaii. “Although incidence in the U.S. is relatively low, leptospirosis is considered to be the most widespread zoonotic disease in the world,” he says.
Although the severity of the disease varies widely in people and in pets, leptospirosis can cause serious liver and kidney damage and can be fatal if it is left untreated, says Bandt.
“Although frequently seen in many animal species and in humans around the world, including the United States, there have been very few cases of pets diagnosed with this disease in the last decade in Florida,” says Bandt.
The bacterium that causes leptospirosis is transmitted through the urine of infected animals, including rodents, mice and other pests, according to the CDC. These bacteria live in soil and water for weeks to months. Several strains of the bacterium cause disease in dogs, although prevalence varies by region. Animals that spend lots of time outside, particularly in areas frequented by wildlife, are most at risk. Signs of leptospirosis in dogs and humans vary and can be nonspecific, but dogs have demonstrated a more consistent range of clinical signs, Cox says.
Those typically include lethargy, depression, lack of interest in eating, vomiting, fever, abdominal pain and changes in urination frequency. A dog showing these signs may or may not have leptospirosis, but pet owners should still contact their veterinarian immediately, Bandt adds.
“All canine patients with acute kidney injury should be tested for leptospirosis,” he says. “If caught early, leptospirosis responds well to antibiotics, but if not, serious and sometimes fatal disease can quickly follow.”
Several vaccines protect against multiple strains of leptospirosis, but historically these vaccines have not been widely used in Florida because of the low frequency of the disease in dogs.
Because leptospirosis is zoonotic, families with infected pets should be careful handling the urine of these animals, Bandt added.
For more information on this increase in leptospirosis, veterinarians can contact the UF Small Animal Hospital at (352) 392-2235.