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  • Writer's pictureKnollwood Hospital for Pets

Leptospirosis: Deadly disease on the rise

Remember your last vaccine talk with us at Knollwood?

We stressed that there are only 2 CORE vaccines - rabies and distemper-parvo booster - that protect a pet against diseases that could kill them and/or are transmissible to their people. (We hope you also remembered that both of these vaccines are available in three year, thimerosal-free versions; that a titer test can be run in lieu of the booster vaccine; and that utilizing both of these options allows us to stagger vaccines, so that only ONE vaccine is administered in a given year. Maybe you also remembered that there are specific integrative therapies that can be used ahead of and after a vaccine, to help stimulate a healthy and safe immune response without side effects.)

ALL other vaccines available - and there are many - are NON-CORE vaccines. Never forget that vaccine manufacturers are profit-focused. (Nothing wrong with that - if we didn’t make a profit at Knollwood, we’d be out of business!) But we don't think that profit should come at the expense of good health recommendations. The vast majority of non-core vaccines were designated as such because they do not address individual patient health adequately, either by reason of poor protection, significant side effects, or non-specificity for the disease they are being promoted to prevent. Non-core vaccines are divided into 2 groups:

  • Those that may be appropriate for specific pets, but only after an informed-consent discussion with you, so that you fully understand the risks and benefits of the vaccine under discussion. This group includes only 2 vaccines: the kennel cough vaccine and the leptospirosis vaccine.

  • Those that are not currently considered appropriate for most pets. This is EVERY other vaccine available.

And THAT brings us to Lepto (leprospirosis) - currently a bigger risk in our area than in past years. Lepto is a seriously big deal. That’s because:

  • Lepto can live in any carnivore – dogs, cats, foxes, coyotes, and more.

  • Lepto can live in other animals, too: deer, skunks, rats, mice & almost 150 other species.

  • Lepto can be transmitted in water, wet vegetation, soil, food, and bedding.

  • Lepto is shed in the urine.

  • Lepto can kill those it infects.

We repeat: Lepto is shed in the urine. Lepto can kill those it infects. The ability for Lepto to spread in urine means that pets who spend any time at all in our Chicago area forest preserves are at risk. Also at risk are pets who stay home, but have a yard that collects water when it rains. Or a basement that leaks. Or who go, even occasionally, to the Dells or Kentucky Lake or Chain of Lakes or any other area where there is water.

Even worse, Lepto occurs in many varieties, like your crazy cousins - all one family, but all different types. We’ll call them serovars. There are many, many serovars. Only some are part of the Lepto vaccine, and only some can be tested for. The specialists at the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine estimate that, despite decades of diligent work, for every Lepto strain and tick disease we have a test for, there are dozens that we don’t even have a name for, let alone a test. You can't test for what you can't midentfy

When a pet (or person) gets Lepto, the liver, spleen, kidneys, eyes and genital tract can all be affected. Some animals can actually live relatively harmoniously with Lepto and then serve as carriers, spreading the disease every time they urinate. Others become sick, develop organ failure, and can become permanently ill. Some die. Costs of treating a severe Lepto case can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. So how do we test for Lepto? The BEST test is blood + urine. Many blood tests are available, with some being more useful in early stages of disease and some in later stages. There is NO “one test diagnoses all Lepto”. Your vet can best advise you how to test, after a thorough exam and a review of your pet's Lepto risks.

Can we prevent Lepto? The BEST way to prevent is to limit your pet’s access to streams, ponds, lakes, swampy areas, and areas of standing water, as well as ANY areas where wildlife that could be carrying Lepto congregate. This isn’t just for your pet’s protection, it’s for YOUR safety – remember, people get Lepto, too. The NEXT best way is to vaccinate for Lepto. Lepto is the ONLY non-core vaccine that Dr. Mitchell recommends. A series of 2 vaccines is required for proper immunity, then an annual booster. We recommend this vaccine for pets who spend time in area dog parks and forest preserves, as well as for all working dogs with access to water.

Why does Dr. Mitchell recommend the Lepto vaccine for at-risk pets?

She began recommending this vaccine during a previous upswing in the incidence of Lepto in 2010, after her own Cairn terrier Lizzie (who had no access to anything except a watered garden, but lots of wildlife) developed sudden-onset kidney failure. Lizzie missed a meal on a Sunday, was slow getting into the car to come to work with Dr. Mitchell Monday, and by that evening we knew that her kidneys were shutting down. We pulled her through the sudden kidney failure with a protocol that would have cost close to $25,000.00 had Dr. Mitchell not been providing the around-the-clock care that Lizzie needed, for 8 weeks. While Lizzie initially recovered, her kidneys failed her again 3 months after diagnosis.

Five months after diagnosis, Lizzie died. Dr. Mitchell still grieves. And she still feels responsible, because she truly thought that providing a minimal vaccine protocol, a healthy fresh-food diet, an active lifestyle plus a "job" to do every day, careful and ongoing preventative care including the benefit of her years of experience with acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicine and more - that all that would be enough to keep Lizzie healthy and safe. And it wasn't.

Make time to discuss core and non-core vaccine benefits and risks with your veterinarian. Knee-jerk reactions such as "no vaccines, ever, for my pet" are about as smart as agreeing to vaccinate for everything available. All pets need and deserve an individualized vaccine protocol and that's what we recommend at Knollwood. No vaccine is perfect and all vaccines carry both risks and benefits - so discuss them with your veterinarian. If your veterinarian isn't willing to give you the time to discuss this during your pet's examination, or seems to prefer a "one size fits all" vaccine protocol, recognize that this is old-fashioned, out-of-date thinking. Find another veterinarian. And remember: there are pre- and post-vaccine treatments that can minimize vaccine risks. But there's no way to eliminate lepto risk.

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