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‘Lepto’ bacteria threatens dogs, humans

PHOTO CAPTION: Bill Bressett and his son with their dog Spike
(Week of December 2, 2010)

The Chihuahua he rescued on a rainy night from the middle of a roadway had wound itself around Bill Bressett’s heart.  Now, the tiny animal, “a breed I usually hated” says Bressett, was listless and urinating “buckets,” something the five-pound dog had never done before. “He was almost paralyzed.”

By the time the vet had diagnosed the problem as the bacteria that causes leptospirosis, Squeaky the Chihuahua was in critical condition, his liver and kidneys failing. Even after a boost of steroids and antibiotics brought the dog back, it was just a temporary fix.

Squeaky died this summer, but not before launching the Bressett family into what Bill calls “hell.”

Another dog remains quarantined and under treatment, and because leptospirosis can be transmitted by animals to humans, Bressett’s family –including an infant grandchild – has had to be treated with antibiotics over a period of weeks.

“I don’t wish this on anybody,” says Bressett, who is still taking antibiotics as a precaution. “This is a topic everyone should know about.”

Leptospirosis is an organism, a bacteria, that is spread in the urine or feces of night creatures like rats, raccoons, and opossums often through contaminated water or soil.

At its worst, it causes the liver and kidneys to fail. 

Chances of a good outcome depend, like so many other ailments, on how quickly it is diagnosed and treated, said Dr. Darrell Horn, who treated the Bressetts’ dogs.

Normally, the bacteria is found in rural places, and when a dog or animal contracts it, it’s usually in the woods or farms and forests.

But as suburbia encroaches more on the wild, including the barrier island with its lush dunes where rabbits, raccoons and other critters make their homes, local vets are seeing a whole lot more of what was once a fairly uncommon ailment, says Horn.

“It is becoming a more suburban disease, where we didn’t see as many cases before, but then we’re also looking for it more. I’m seeing about 12 a year or so,” says Horn.

By comparison, heart worms are common locally, and he sees about 50 cases a year of that.

 “People used to think, yeah, this happens to hunting dogs or animals on farms, dogs that roam in open areas. But that’s changing.”

In Bressett’s case, the tiny dog he saved likely had come in contact with water or dirt that had the bacteria.

But when Bressett brought it home, the bacteria was now “everywhere” – in his house, in the backyard soil, anywhere the animal relieved itself.

Before long, Bresset’s pitbull/boxer mix, Spike, was showing similar symptoms.

“Right now, he’s under medication but I can still see his eyes are yellow,” said Bressett. 

And after the Thanksgiving weekend? Things were not much better.

Spike was vomiting and Bressett was running back to the vet.  “It’s insane, crazy stuff,” he said.

“Lepto is a huge public health risk,” said Dr. Laura Baldwin of the Divine Animal Hospital. “It is very, very contagious. And what a lot of people don’t realize is that even after clinical systems have cleared, the animal continues to shed” bacteria.

Baldwin said that “shedding” of the bacteria through the urine contaminates the land where the animal lives. She says pet owners have to be very careful to make sure there is no standing water in the yard and that all other at-risk pets are treated.

Although Divine has not had any cases for the past few years, Baldwin encourages vaccinations.

Vaccination is the best prevention, although like any vaccine, it’s not foolproof.

There are many strains of leptospirosis and owners can only hope the vaccine covers the strains that arise locally.

Bressett has been through that feeling that he couldn’t get things clean enough.

“I’m a clean freak. I felt dirty. I thought I had rats or something. But then you realize how it is spread, and there is nothing I can do about that. It’s in my soil back there.  I have to worry about my grandchild and my family getting it. It’s just hell.”

An expensive hell, too.

For the chihuahua and Spike’s treatment, Bressett has spent well over $1,000. And that doesn’t include his own antibiotics, all the cleaning and disruptions to try to keep the possibility of infecting others to a minimum.

“I have white towels. I was bleaching everything,” he says.

Spike is living in a back porch, quarantined from the rest of the family.

“He’s a great animal; we think we can save him,” said Bressett.

Once an animal is infected the treatment includes therapies using intravenous fluids, antibiotics like penicillin, ampicilin and doxycycline, said the Florida Veterinary League’s Horn. But whether treatment is successful depends on when the illness is diagnosed, and how far along the patient is. Even with treatment, leptospirosis often is fatal.

In humans, leptospirosis has the same outcome – it affects the kidneys and the liver, and untreated can cause both organs to fail, making it potentially fatal.

As in animals, it is spread when humans come into contact with the bacteria – usually when a person somehow comes in contact with an infected animal’s urine,  saliva, organs or infected tissue. 

There have been cases of leptospirosis spreading in bodies of water when a person is swimming, too, said Horn, but those cases are more rare.