Pet Points: Serious disease prompts vets to improve lepto vaccine for dogs

To a new pet owner, the vaccinations veterinarians use for dogs might seem like alphabet soup. The core vaccine every puppy should receive is distemper, hepatitis (adenovirus), parainfluenza and parvovirus. These vaccines are called DHPP.

An additional vaccine for a bacterial infection known as leptospirosis (lepto) adds an L and is abbreviated DHLPP. At one time lepto was given routinely to all dogs. Then it was implicated as a major factor in vaccine reactions without giving complete protection for all types of the disease. Years ago, some veterinarians stopped using the vaccine routinely.

Improvements and the addition of four strains of bacteria in the vaccine convinced many veterinarians to begin recommending lepto again. Boosters are required annually as immunity to this disease does not last as long as for viral diseases. After getting a core series of vaccines and a booster one year later, a puppy may have more health risk from lepto later in life than other diseases we vaccinate for in dogs. Cats are naturally resistant to lepto.

The lepto bacterial infection can damage the kidneys, liver, eyes, lungs and blood vessels. The complexity of this disease and the difficulty of recognizing and testing for it makes the job of the veterinarian difficult. Further complicating the issue is that lepto can be zoonotic and spread to humans. Worldwide, 500,000 people a year are reported to get lepto, and 100,000 of those die from the disease.

The prognosis for an acutely sick dog is guarded with damage to both liver and kidneys. Death can come from widespread organ damage, kidney failure and hemorrhage. Even with recovery, residual liver and kidney damage can become chronic.

Traditionally, we think of lepto as a rural, large-dog problem. Often lepto spreads from wildlife urine and contaminated water. Dogs in an urban environment are at risk due to the exposure to rat urine and other wildlife exposure in parks and backyards. Infected dogs have a fever, loss of appetite and energy, vomiting, dehydration and jaundice. These symptoms can be confused with a number of other problems we see. There may be many dogs that are treated with antibiotics and recover from lepto without ever getting a specific diagnosis. It can take a few weeks for blood tests to show a rising number of lepto antibodies.

A recent survey in Pennsylvania found that dogs in Allegheny County were more at risk for contracting lepto than dogs in the rest of the state. In discussing the disease with other veterinarians, I have found that it is seen in this area, although the diagnosis may not be made frequently.

When discussing the risk factors with your veterinarian, the decision to vaccinate should not be taken lightly. Adding lepto vaccine to other vaccines and giving all of them at the same time can increase the chance of a vaccine reaction, especially in small dogs. The miniature dachshund is known to react to lepto vaccine, and we avoid vaccination in this breed altogether. My own little Maltese has significant exposure to wildlife and water. She is vaccinated, but I separate the lepto vaccine from rabies and DHPP.

Reactions can vary from mild to severe. Common reactions include lethargy, facial swelling or hives. Life-threatening reactions are rarely seen from lepto and other vaccines. Animals with a history of reactions can be pre-treated prior to vaccination. Veterinarians need to balance the risk of vaccination with the very serious nature of the disease.

I had a situation where a puppy I had vaccinated for distemper (DHPP) without lepto was sold and finished the vaccine schedule at another veterinary office without lepto. The dog, who was living in a suburban environment, was exposed to lepto and died from the disease.

Veterinarians should design a vaccination program for each patient, and leptospirosis is an important disease to consider adding to the vaccine protocol. With care, veterinarians can protect your pet from this serious disease.

Lawrence Gerson is a veterinarian and founder of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic. His biweekly column is intended to educate pet owners. Consultation with a veterinarian is necessary to diagnose and treat individual pets. If you have a question you'd like addressed in Pet Points, email Please include your name and municipality or neighborhood.