UF veterinarians report spike in leptospirosis cases
University of Florida veterinarians have reported a recent spike in cases of leptospirosis 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,” said Carsten Bandt, D.V.M., an assistant professor of emergency medicine and critical care at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine. 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 does not collect data on dogs, although the information may be reportable in animals in some states, said Christopher Cox, a health communications specialist with the CDC.
Cox said between 100-200 leptospirosis cases are identified annually in humans in the United States, 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 said.
Although the severity of the disease can vary widely in people and in pets, leptospirosis can cause serious liver and kidney damage and can be fatal if left untreated, said Bandt, an assistant professor of emergency medicine and critical care at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine.
“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,” said Bandt, who also serves as chief of the hospital’s emergency and critical care service.
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, found in rural, suburban and urban areas, can get into soil and water and live there for weeks to months. Several strains of the bacterium cause disease in dogs, although the prevalence varies by region.
Animals that spend lots of time outside, particularly in areas frequented by wildlife, are most at risk for contracting the disease. Signs of leptospirosis in dogs and humans vary and can be non-specific, but dogs have demonstrated a more consistent range of symptoms, Cox said.
Those typically include lethargy, depression, lack of interest in eating, vomiting, fever and/or abdominal pain, along with changes in the frequency of urination. A dog showing these signs may or may not have leptospirosis, but pet owners should still contact their veterinarian immediately, Bandt added.
“All canine patients with acute kidney injury should be tested for leptospirosis,” he said. “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.
Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted to humans by animals. Because of this, families with infected pets should be careful handling the urine of these animals, Bandt added.