This is one of the most divisive subjects to stir debate within the dog world in recent years. Most UK vets advise routinely vaccinating dogs against leptospirosis (commonly called lepto) as part of their yearly booster injection. This also protects against distemper, hepatitis, parvovirus and parainfluenza.
Vaccines are now available to protect dogs against all four major strains of lepto present in the UK or common in Europe; Canicola, Icterohaemorrhagiae, Australis and Gryippotyphosa. These ‘L4’ vaccines supersede the two-strain (L2) version which have been used in the UK for over 50 years.
Why do some dog owners leave it out?
Doubts over the lepto vaccine’s safety arose after inaccurate reports of post-L4 vaccination illness were widely publicised in the press. As a result, some owners either don’t vaccinate their dogs against lepto at all, or opt to give the L2 version.
The VMD (Veterinary Medicines Directorate) is the government agency responsible for monitoring the safety of all animal vaccines and medications used in the UK. Their data shows that the risk of dogs reacting adversely to either the L2 or L4 vaccine is actually rare. For every 10 000 doses of lepto vaccine given, the VMD receives reports of fewer than two dogs reacting to the L2 vaccine and fewer than seven reacting to the L4 vaccine.
It’s worth pointing out that any vaccine can cause a range of reactions, the majority of which are non-serious. The VMD’s data doesn’t distinguish between serious and non-serious reactions.
Is vaccination against leptospirosis even necessary?
Leptospirosis is a relatively rare disease and, if diagnosed early, is treatable. But diagnosing lepto is challenging. The symptoms of leptospirosis can be vague and resemble those seen with many other diseases. External laboratories take time to process and run tests which leads to an unavoidable delay in treatment. During this time, lepto can rapidly progress causing serious illness and, sadly, even death. Vaccination prevents dogs from becoming seriously ill in the first place.
Leptospirosis affects most mammalian species (humans included!) Infected animals (particularly rats) contaminate fresh water sources (e.g. canals, ponds, rivers) with their urine. Animals contract leptospirosis by swimming in, and drinking, contaminated water or through open skin wounds. Both city-dwelling and country rats carry lepto therefore dogs can contract it wherever they live. It’s impossible to ‘risk assess’ a dog’s lifestyle and guarantee they’ll never come into contact with lepto.
Can I get leptospirosis from my dog?
Weil’s disease is the human form of leptospirosis. It’s a serious condition causing a range of symptoms from flu-like illness progressing to kidney and liver failure.
While it’s possible to contract lepto directly from your dog, it’s a rare way to become infected. Leptospira bacteria, shed in your dog’s urine, could infect you through skin wounds and direct contact with your mucous membranes (mouth and nose).
Your dog’s contaminated bedding and kennels could also become potential sources of infection. Dogs who recover from lepto may continue to carry, and intermittently shed, infectious bacteria in their urine. Vaccination helps prevent your dog becoming a carrier of lepto.
What are the alternatives to vaccination?
Your vet can run blood tests to measure your dog’s immunity to many diseases. If your dog’s immunity is adequate, you might choose not to vaccinate them. However, the tests for Lepto are too unreliable to be recommended at this time (unlike Parvo, Distemper or Hepatitis).
The WSAVA say “For Leptospira the titres will decline rapidly after vaccination and in any case are not well correlated with protection”. And immunity to lepto is short-lived; studies show immunity reduces around a year after vaccination (hence why it’s an annual vaccine). Even if your dog’s blood test shows adequate immunity, this protection will likely fall over the following months.
Leptospirosis is a serious illness, preventable by vaccination. If you’re still unsure about vaccinating your dog, speak to your vet to discuss your options and your dog’s level of risk.
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