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A Dog Near Death and the Miracle of a Pet Owner's Love

September 20, 2011 | 19,317 views
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pet owners loveWhen Ann Krcik's 5-year-old Airedale terrier Shayla acquired leptospirosis, she was admitted to the Pet Emergency and Specialty Center of Marin in San Rafael, CA.

Krcik asked the veterinarian, Dr. Marcella Harb-Hauser, if spending time with her dog at the center would help the healing process. Dr. Harb-Hauser encouraged Krcik to come visit her dog. The doctor believes that "Just like humans, if pets are less stressed, they heal faster." 

So Krcik visited Shayla several times each day, sitting on the floor with her 65 pound dog in her lap.

Shayla seemed to be getting better, but additional tests showed the disease had attacked the dog's lungs and had become life-threatening. Dr. Harb-Hauser told Krcik there was nothing more she could do for Shayla medically.

Krcik, sitting on the floor with Shayla in her lap, could feel her dog struggling to breathe. She held Shayla tighter, taking some small comfort in knowing at least she could hold her pet as she passed on.

At that very second, Shayla's health suddenly turned around. Her breathing improved and the very next day she was off oxygen and at home with Krcik to complete her recovery.

According to Dr. Harb-Hauser:

"We'll never really know why Shayla's health appeared to change in that instant. I firmly believe that Ann's presence, holding her the way she was, somehow helped Shayla enough to fight the physiological ailments she was facing.  She may have recovered regardless, but it sure didn't seem that way."

Dr. Becker's Comments:

This wonderful story isn't really about leptospirosis, which I'll discuss shortly. It's about the human-animal bond and how truly life-giving we are to the pets who love us.

If you want to be with your pet during vet exams, procedures and hospitalizations, you should make your wishes known to your veterinarian ahead of time, if possible. Some DVMs are perfectly fine having pet parents around while they work. Others don't feel comfortable with an audience.

It will also depend on the procedure being performed, the size of the exam and procedure rooms, sterile field considerations, your stress level, your pet's, and other factors.

If your vet isn't willing to let you stay with your pet and the reasons he or she gives don't make sense to you, you might want to consider switching to another veterinary practice.

And now I do want to discuss the disease that almost took Shayla's life, and two aspects of it in particular. One is the little-known fact that lepto can cause serious damage to the lungs and pulmonary function in dogs. And the other is, despite recent hype to the contrary, leptospirosis has been around a long, long time and is very successfully treated if caught early. 

Canine Leptospirosis

Leptospirosis is caused by at least four species of leptospira bacteria (serovars) that infect dogs. We know that there are more than 20 serovars in existence.

Leptospira are found in both domesticated and wild animals, with rats, pigs, raccoons, cattle, skunks and opossums as the main reservoirs of infection. With suburban sprawl, more family dogs are coming in contact with wildlife, and this could be the cause of the increase in lepto cases.

The bacteria is spread in urine. It gets into water sources and can remain infective in soil for as long as six months. Dogs can pick up the bacteria through a cut or other break in the skin or when they drink contaminated water.

Dogs at particular risk of acquiring the infection are those who spend a lot of time in the water, drink out of puddles, or who hang out in yards that get rain or snow runoff.

Lepto Symptoms and Treatment

Many leptospirosis infections are so mild there are no symptoms. Clinical signs will depend on the age and health of the dog, environmental factors affecting the bacteria, and the virulence of the infecting species. Young dogs tend to get sicker than adult dogs.

If signs of infection do appear, they will show up from four to 12 days after exposure to the bacteria and can include:

  • Fever and muscle pain
  • Loss of appetite and vomiting
  • Lethargy, depression
  • Diarrhea
  • Blood in the urine

The disease primarily impacts the kidneys and liver. In serious cases, a dog can become jaundiced (usually the whites of the eyes turn yellow), indicating a case of hepatitis and destruction of liver cells. Blood clotting problems can develop which can cause blood in the stools and bleeding from the mouth.

An untreated dog who recovers from leptospirosis can become a carrier and shed the bacteria in urine for as long as a year.

If your dog is seriously ill with the disease, she should be hospitalized both for her sake and for public health reasons. She'll be given an antibiotic or a combination of antibiotics, and she'll receive supportive care to alleviate vomiting and diarrhea, and to insure she's well hydrated and is receiving nutrition.

If your dog has been diagnosed with lepto but doesn't require hospitalization, you can manage his care at home while implementing careful hygiene measures:

  • Wear gloves in the event you need to come in contact with your pet's urine
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after handling or cleaning up after your dog
  • Clean non-porous surfaces that have been urinated on with either an antibacterial disinfectant or diluted bleach

Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease, which means it can be transmitted from animals to humans. It can cause flu-like symptoms in family members, and sometimes progresses to serious illness.

If your dog has lepto and anyone in your family or others in contact with your dog get sick, be sure to mention the possibility of a leptospirosis infection to health care providers.

Leptospirosis and the Lungs

Shayla, the 5-year-old Airedale terrier described above with lepto, was recovering normally until the disease hit her lungs.

And while it's understood in veterinary medicine the disease sometimes affects the lungs of dogs, it is not a commonly seen situation and is much more prevalent in human leptospirosis than canine. That's why most available information on canine lepto doesn't even mention lung involvement.

Lung involvement in humans with the disease is called leptospiral pulmonary hemorrhagic syndrome (LPHS). A study done in Berlin and published late last year in Veterinary Medicine International discusses a similar emerging syndrome in dogs.

According to the study:

Between 2006 and 2010, an increasing number of dogs suspicious for leptospirosis were treated at the Small Animal Clinic of the Freie Universität Berlin. More than two-third of these dogs had clinical and radiological pulmonary manifestation in addition to renal and hepatic insufficiency [20].

The cause of death in all 15 dogs in the study was severe, acute, pulmonary hemorrhage. And researchers theorized the acute liver and kidney lesions seen in some of the dogs were most likely caused by hypoxia (oxygen deprivation) due to respiratory distress.

The waters remain murky, however, because the cause of the pulmonary hemorrhage syndrome in the dogs could not be definitively linked to leptospiral organisms, even though all the dogs had the disease.

In another Berlin study published around the same time but in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine looked for pulmonary abnormalities in 50 dogs with leptospirosis.

The study found that 35 of the 50 dogs had pulmonary changes according to x-rays, and 31 had pulmonary distress. Sixty-seven percent of the dogs (20 to 21) were euthanized because of respiratory distress.

The study concluded 70 percent of dogs with leptospirosis had pulmonary changes, and that lung involvement as a symptom represents a severe complication that causes an increase in deaths from the disease.

Preventing Leptospirosis

Leptospira bacteria thrive in warm, humid climates and are frequently found in stagnant water, for example in ponds. Animals in the wild can also carry the bacteria.

Dogs exposed to contaminated water and wild animals and their urine (hunting dogs, for example) are at greater risk than other dogs.

Infection is most prevalent in the summer and early fall, and after flooding.

Rodent control around your home can cut down the opportunity for infection. And if you live in a location where lepto is common, keeping your dog away from ponds, slow-moving water and sitting or stagnant water will also reduce the risk.

I actually live in a high-risk area for lepto, and I'm confident my dogs have had exposure (from our pond, or from all the free-standing water and puddles they drink from). In addition to keeping my pets' immune systems thriving, I also stay alert to the symptoms of lepto. A leptospirosis infection, like many bacterial infections, can be cured successfully if identified and treated early.

If you live in an endemic area and your dog suddenly develops lethargy, a fever and symptoms of a urinary tract infection, ask your vet to test for lepto immediately. Quick diagnosis and treatment usually results in complete recovery from this bacterial infection.

In fact, I treat about a dozen cases of lepto each year and have never had an animal experience any lasting consequences from the infection.

There is a vaccine for leptospirosis, but I do not recommend it. It is a relatively weak bacterial vaccine with marginal staying power and it cannot protect against all 20 or more leptospira serovars. The vaccine carries a significant risk of adverse reactions, especially in small dogs.

Information is also emerging that the lepto vaccine can actually cause the disease in dogs, and can bring on kidney failure in older dogs.

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