If you type “Leptospirosis” into any search engine, and read through the risk factors for contracting this nasty bacterial infection, you can see why I might be more aware of the disease than most. Participants in open water swimming (tick), rowers (tick) and veterinary surgeons (tick again) are all near the top of the list of those at risk.
Leptospirosis is not just common in these circles – cows and dogs can also be affected. In cattle, the disease causes reduced fertility and, in pregnant animals, abortion. When a dog succumbs, however, the consequences are life threatening. The strain of Lepto that we most commonly see in dogs causes sudden onset liver and kidney failure. An unvaccinated dog which plays near a river or drinks dirty water from ditches, or one that spends time catching rats is particularly at risk. While there is no vaccine to protect against leptospirosis in humans, both cattle and dogs can be vaccinated routinely, which makes it all the more frustrating when we see a case.
With two vets in the house, mealtime conversations often revolve around interesting cases, difficult diagnoses or challenging clients. As I dished out the risotto, Anne told me about a young spaniel she was treating. Her boss had described the jaundiced spaniel as “more yellow than Bananaman’s wallet”. Its liver and kidney parameters were off the scale and it was desperately poorly. The dog’s vaccines had lapsed, and it lived on a farm near the river. The finger of suspicion pointed towards infection with Leptospira.
Sadly, two days later, despite intensive treatment, the spaniel died. The owner’s funds did not stretch as far as post-mortem and lab tests. It can be expensive to get a definitive diagnosis, and it was more important to get all his other dogs up to date with their vaccines.
So, when I heard that Benson, a four-year-old labrador, had been rushed to the practice, collapsed and yellow, my suspicions were raised. He had been treated at another practice, but his owner (whose daughter was at school with my son) had decided that I was the person to treat the dog. Unfortunately, I was already out on my rounds, blood-testing bulls, when they arrived, so Benson saw a colleague. Benson was showing signs of multiple organ failure, with dramatic jaundice. The whites of his eyes, his gums and his skin were all also “as yellow as Bananaman’s wallet”. Despite aggressive treatment, Benson deteriorated rapidly, and he did not make it home.
I called his owner to explain the situation, and discuss the possibility of Lepto. I enquired about his vaccination status and asked whether he ever walked near a river or a lake.
“Oh, yes. He’s always in the river,” she confirmed, “We walk him there every day. He’s always drinking dirty water from the river. I wish he wouldn’t, but it’s not easy to stop him. He’s a typical labrador. Well, he was a typical labrador.” She broke down in tears.
Benson lived within a few miles of the spaniel Anne had been treating, and it seemed plausible that both young, water-loving dogs had succumbed to the same, fatal disease. I talked through the intricacies of diagnosis and the need for post-mortem samples. Clearly further testing would not help Benson, or his family (the other pet they owned was a cat, mercifully not at risk), but they agreed to do some post-mortem tests to help confirm the reason for Benson’s death. The samples went off to the lab the same day. Veterinary surgeons in two practices, and owners in two households are all waiting for results with baited breath…