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Veterinarians on alert for dog-deadly ‘Lepto’

Local veterinarians have their ears pricked for any word on Leptospirosis, a lethal bacterial disease that counts dogs among its victims.

The bacteria is sometimes present in standing water, particularly following the kind of heavy rain activity the County has been experiencing. Dogs can contract the disease if they drink any water while romping through puddles.

One case of Leptospirosis has already struck this season in Sonoma County.

Karen Pierce Gonzalez, of Rohnert Park, recently lost her dog Kada to the disease. After a walk through her neighborhood, Kada soon grew ill, showing signs of acute kidney failure. Two days later, Kada was gone.

“It was so sudden,” says Pierce-Gonzalez. She now hopes that by spreading the word, others might be spared the grief her family has experienced.

“Kada picked it up from standing water, which is everywhere,” she points out. “Even dogs on leashes are susceptible. It’s just really, really sad.”

Leptospirosis – often called Lepto for short – is spread largely through contact with infected animal urine, easily deposited in water sources, or carried along infected soil by flowing water. Local concern is heightened after a recent rash of dog deaths in San Francisco in the latter part of February. A similar epidemic of Leptospirosis-related dog deaths began in Northern Arizona earlier in February.

“Lepto is a nasty little bacteria,” says Dr. Howard Rosnar, of Sonoma Veterinarian Clinic. “It usually presents with a high fever that doesn’t respond to treatment, and includes signs of kidney disease, heavy urination, dehydration.”

Rosnar says the disease is sometimes treatable if caught early – but that’s rare. The best prevention, he says, is vaccination before a dog is exposed.

Noting that many dog-owning residents of San Francisco spend their weekends in Wine Country, and that many residents of the Sonoma Valley work in the city Monday through Friday, Rosnar believes the risk of eventual spread to the area is very real.

“If Lepto is being seen in San Francisco, it’s just a matter of time until we see it here,” he says. “It’s been eight years since we’ve seen Lepto in a dog in the Valley, but it tends to come in waves. I think it’s crucial to be vaccinating for Lepto, especially now.”

According to veterinarian Dave Rupiper, of East Petaluma Animal Hospital, potentially hazardous areas where Lepto could be a threat include hiking trails, streams, local rivers, and communal water sources such as dog parks and community gardens. Not that such dog-pleasing places should necessarily be entirely avoided.

But what, exactly, is Leptospirosis?

“Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease of dogs and other mammals,” says Dr. Rhonda Stallings, of Arroyo Veterinary Hospital, in Boyes Hot Springs. “This disease thrives in a wet environment, which is why we are concerned about an increase in cases here in Sonoma.”

The highly-infectious disease is caused by Leptospira, a corkscrew shaped bacteria that, if left untreated, spreads quickly, potentially resulting in kidney failure, internal bleeding and other fatal complications. The best prevention, agrees Stallings, is for dog-owners to have their dogs vaccinated by a licensed veterinarian. Most dogs are vaccinated against Lepto and other illness early on, but the Lepto vaccine requires yearly doses to stay effective. When a dog has never had the vaccine, first-time treatment requires two to three shots – one initial vaccination followed by one or two booster shots a month or so after the first treatment.

“If your dogs go to kennels or daycare,” Stallings says, “they should be vaccinated. The only other way to prevent this disease is to avoid high-risk areas. Avoid puddles, lakes, creeks, any areas where wildlife and water mix.”

Asked what symptoms should be watched out for, Stallings says, “If your dog appears lethargic, is not eating, is drinking too much, is vomiting or any other vague symptoms, don’t wait. Get them to the vet. The sooner the pet is treated the more likely your dog will survive.”

There is some concern that the bacteria could spread to humans, too, though instances of Lepto moving from animal to human are rare.

“We have not had a human case in Sonoma County since 2007,” says Scott Alonso, marketing director of the Sonoma County Department of Health Services. “Frequent unprotected contact with infected urine may increase the risk somewhat, so liquid and solid wastes from infected dogs should be disposed of as biohazardous wastes. Any bedding material the dog might have had contact with should be washed in hot water with bleach.”

Alonso says that Leptospirosis is one of many illnesses that animal health experts are always on alert for.

“Our shelter vaccinates every dog for Lepto upon entering the shelter,” he says.

Unfortunately, not all dog-owning residents take vaccination so seriously, laments Rosnar.

“People are getting vaccine shy,” he says. “And many, when they hear that Lepto is common in skunks and squirrels and rats, just think, ‘Oh, my dog doesn’t come into contact with wild animals.’ But where there are puddles – which wild animals might urinate in or drink from, and which dogs play in and drink from – there can be Lepto.”

Email david.templeton@sonomanews.com.

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