The signs of leptospirosis can mimic many other diseases and illnesses. The first signs in dogs are often depression, loss of appetite, vomiting, weakness and generalized pain. Affected dogs may also drink water and urinate excessively and have swollen, red and painful eyes. Because these signs are common to other diseases and nonspecific, owners may try to treat their pets at home for such problems as an upset stomach or arthritis.
This “wait and see” response delays proper diagnosis and treatment for the dog, as well as increasing the owner’s exposure to the disease. If caught early, treatment is usually effective and the survival rate is good. However, time is of the essence. A mere three- or four-day delay can lead to irreversible kidney failure.
Vaccines are available, but many pet owners have either experienced or heard about adverse reactions associated with these vaccines. In the past, leptospirosis vaccines were generally created using the whole bacterial organism. In many cases, when a whole bacterium is used, the likelihood of a “vaccine reaction” increases. Thankfully, newer vaccines have been developed that reduce this possibility by using specific leptospirosis proteins instead of the whole organism.
A study reviewing vaccine reactions in more than 1 million dogs vaccinated found that reactions occur about 13 times for every 10,000 vaccines given. More importantly, the Lepto vaccine was no more likely to cause a reaction than any other vaccine.
So, if the vaccine appears to be safe and the disease deadly, shouldn’t all dog owners vaccinate their pets?
At present, vaccines are available that protect against four of the common strains infecting dogs. In addition, the vaccine will prevent clinical disease, but may not stop the pet from shedding bacteria in his urine. This makes the pet a threat to other animals, especially those who are not vaccinated. And, as mentioned above, humans are at risk, as well.