The Leptospirosis Vaccine for Dogs: What You Need to Know
By: Dr. Clayton Greenway, B.Sc., DVM | Jan 6, 2019
Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection that initially causes inflammation of the vessels. They can multiply quickly once in the bloodstream and spread to the kidneys, liver, eyes, spleen, genitals and central nervous system. Symptoms start with fever, muscle tenderness, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, inappetence, and lethargy. It can progress to muscle stiffness, coughing, gastrointestinal bleeding, nasal inflammation, rapid breathing, and difficulty breathing. Abdominal pain due to kidney swelling and jaundice when the liver is affected can occur as well. Here we answer questions about the leptospirosis vaccine for dogs.
What is the risk of getting the disease it protects against?
The risk of getting the disease will be different for every pet. It depends on geographic location, seasonality, exposure to wildlife and interaction with the environment. Leptospirosis is carried by racoons, rats, other dogs, and less so mice, cows, horses, and pigs. So your risk will increase if you walk your dog in an area that is visited by these animals. The most common source is racoons for inner-city dogs. They can contract it through infected urine, infected tissue and bite wounds. The most common source would be standing water, such as ponds and puddles, in your neighborhood that other infected animals have urinated in. Late summer and early fall is a more common time to contract the disease because of the increased rainfall at this time of year. So thinking in these terms, you can reduce your dog’s risk of exposure by eliminating standing water, keeping them on a tight leash and discouraging drinking from outdoor water sources, reducing wildlife exposure to your property, avoiding swimming in lakes and streams where wildlife visit, discourage eating of dead tissue outside and reducing exposure to dogs they could fight with.
How effective is the leptospirosis vaccine for dogs?
There are more than 16 species of leptospirosis. There is a vaccine available in North America for the prevention of 4 of the species. There is not total cross-protection of the vaccine from these 4 species to the others so it is still entirely possible to contract the disease despite vaccination. The vaccine has been known to provide less than total protection against the disease. Vaccinated dogs have also shown to have less shedding of the bacteria reducing the presence of leptospirosis in the dog’s immediate environment.
How often does it have to be given?
The vaccine is commonly given once a year. Studies show that protection can last from 8 months to a year. When the vaccine is first given, a booster vaccine is often given one month later to improve the success of initial immunity before moving to the annual schedule. Some veterinarians may recommend a third vaccine initially.
What are the possible side effects? How long and how severe are they?
Reactions can occur with vaccination but it is no more likely than other core vaccines that are given. A rabies vaccine is more likely to cause a reaction in any dog than a vaccine for leptospirosis. The possible side effects of any vaccine could be fever, lethargy, and inappetence. These symptoms are not concerning since the purpose of the vaccine is to interact and challenge the immune system. People receiving a vaccine will often experience these symptoms. A concerning vaccine reaction can occur in some individuals that are sensitive to it and they could be facial swelling, urticaria or skin swellings, vomiting and itchiness. The timing of when these symptoms occur can be immediate or take a few days to develop since a patient could have an anaphylactic reaction or longer ‘cell-mediated’ reaction. An anaphylactic reaction can occur within seconds and create immediate skin reactions, difficulty breathing and can potentially be fatal. 15 years of giving vaccines and I have yet to experience such an event but every vaccine has its possible negative effects. These symptoms can be reduced or mitigated with treatment by your veterinarian with the use of antihistamines and steroids.
What is the probability of getting the side effects?
This is a question every veterinarian would like answered. There is no way to predict what type of dog could be sensitive to a vaccine. Some believe that small, white-coated breeds have more of a risk of reacting. Some breeds are known to be more reactive than others and you can discuss this with your veterinarian. If your dog is known to be allergic or has had previous reactions, you could discuss the concept of ‘splitting’ vaccines and also pre-treating with antihistamines. These strategies work to reduce the chance of a vaccine reaction. It is well accepted that vaccination in both people and pets are more beneficial than they are harmful but it is hotly debated in the general public. I wouldn’t staunchly recommend vaccination without a conversation first about the risk of exposure to the disease the vaccine is supposed to protect against.
What are your thoughts on a dog getting this annually?
The answer is simple and that is, ‘it depends’. A vaccine is about protecting against a disease that poses a risk. The reason I outline the information above is so that you can make your own decision and not just follow what the animal clinic recommends for everyone who comes in the door. If you believe your dog is at risk for contracting the disease based on the factual information above, then giving the vaccine to reduce that risk has merit. If you feel based on the lifestyle, location, travel pattern and activity you expose your dog to that the risk is very low, then you can choose to decline it. Also, if you hate the thought of vaccines and you think they are generally unhealthy, impose risk, dangerous, and are a staunch anti-vaxxer, then that is okay too. I support either concept as long as you, the owner, protector and true provider for your pet is making the decision. Just don’t let someone make the decision for you on that sole basis that every patient who walks in the hospital gets the same protocol.
Should I get a titer test instead to see if it is necessary?
I don’t believe there is a titer test for leptospirosis.
In the end, your veterinarian is supposed to educate you in an unbiased way and allow you to make the decision. I encourage you to watch our videos “Which Vaccines Should I Give My Dog or Cat?”, “Everything You Need to Know About Vaccine Reactions” and “How Often Vaccines Need Boosters & The Benefits of Titer Testing for Dogs & Cats” to educate yourself in preparation for a good conversation with your veterinarian.
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