Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Talking Lepto

Is your dog at risk for leptospirosis? You might be surprised by the answer

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

When you think of leptospirosis -- if you think about it at all -- you probably assume it primarily affects large dogs in rural areas. You may have been told not to have your small dog vaccinated for it because of the risk of a reaction. Or you may have heard it doesn’t occur where you live.

But the bacterial disease, a zoonosis that can be transmitted between animals and humans, is seeing a resurgence. The rising incidence may have several possible causes: greater awareness; better testing; the increasing intersection of wildlife, pets and humans; or climate change bringing more rain or flooding to an area.

Whatever the cause, it’s a good idea to talk to your veterinarian and decide whether your dog is a candidate for the non-core vaccine. Exposure risk depends on factors such as lifestyle and locale -- think dogs who go hiking or camping, swim in freshwater lakes, or live in areas where rodents proliferate or flooding occurs, including cities such as New York, Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta and Chicago.

Dogs who lick the sidewalk or munch grass where a rat, raccoon, opossum, deer or other carrier animal has urinated can be exposed. Urban and suburban wildlife shed leptospires -- the tightly coiled spirochetes that transmit the disease -- in their urine. Standing water, heavy sprinkler use on lawns or golf courses, high rainfall and flooding -- all of which attract thirsty wildlife -- are factors in the spread of leptospirosis. The only place it’s unlikely to occur is in a true desert, which excludes places such as Phoenix or Palm Springs, California, where golf courses rule.

“It is more common in city dogs nowadays. It is not common in rural dogs anymore,” says Justine Lee, DVM, DACVECC. An emergency and critical care specialist in Minnesota, she sees one to two cases a week of lepto. She attributes the incidence to increased urban wildlife exposure and lack of vaccination.

Wildlife doesn’t just mean deer, foxes, coyotes or raccoons. “There are mice and rats everywhere,” Dr. Lee says.

Fear of serious vaccine reactions, especially in small dogs, is common. That did occur in the past, and of course still can, but newer vaccines are made in a way that reduces unwanted cellular debris and protein content -- key factors in vaccine reactions.

“The older vaccines probably were associated with more vaccine reactions because of how they were made, but the more modern vaccines are associated with fewer adverse effects (and) give protection against more strains of leptospirosis,” says Katherine F. Lunn, BVMS, MS, Ph.D., MRCVS, DACVIM, associate professor in the department of clinical sciences at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh.

Another common belief is that the vaccine’s effects are short-lived.

“There are very good studies showing that dogs are protected for at least one year after being vaccinated,” Dr. Lunn says. “The old idea that immunity only lasts a few months after vaccination is not correct.”

Dog lovers are divided over whether to give the vaccination. Some have had experiences with dogs who reacted to the vaccine or don’t believe their dogs’ lifestyles put them at risk.

Those who have seen the effects of lepto -- acute kidney injury and sometimes death -- lean the other way. “It’s endemic in my area,” says Linda C. Rehkopf, who lives outside Atlanta and vaccinates her Labradors for the disease. “I’ve known of one that made it through; many that did not.”

Treating lepto can require three to five days of hospitalization. At any specialty veterinary hospital, that’s a minimum of $1,000 a day.

A final consideration: Lepto is transmissible between dogs and humans through direct or indirect contact with contaminated urine, blood or tissues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends common-sense precautions: washing hands after handling pets, wearing protective gear if handling infected dogs and cleaning contaminated surfaces with antibacterial products.


Cat on board!

Sea cat ahoy

Q: Our family is going on a long-term cruise on our boat, and we don’t want to leave our cat behind. Can a cat live happily on a boat, and do you have any safety tips?

A: Cats have a long history as sailors; just ask the Vikings. They have many advantages as seagoing companions: They’re small, quiet, surefooted and use a litter box. With preparation and practice, your cat can become a great first mate.

Take a couple of trial runs. Hang out on the boat while it’s in the slip so your cat can explore. See how he does walking a gangplank (if he’s leash-trained), and note his response to the boat rocking beneath his paws as he walks around. Take it slow, and give lots of treats during his explorations (on-leash or under supervision). Next time, take a short cruise, again rewarding him with treats as he gains his sea legs.

If he appears to have ship cats in his family tree, outfit him with a pet life preserver that fits securely and doesn’t obstruct his movement. Choose one in a bright color so it’s easily seen if your cat goes into the drink after a pod of porpoises or a fin of flying fish. It should have a handle on top so it’s easily grabbed by your hand or a boat hook.

A rope ladder -- cats are good at climbing -- and a dip net are also good items to have. Place netting between stanchions all the way around the boat to help prevent “kitty overboard” incidents.

Weighted stainless steel food and water dishes won’t slide around. Avoid using clumping cat litter; it hardens when it gets wet and can be difficult to scrub off the deck.

For more tips, check out these blogs: and -- Kim Campbell Thornton

Do you have a pet question? Send it to or visit


Cat health org

has new name

-- Winn Feline Foundation, which has funded studies on feline health and well-being for 53 years, has a new name! Now called EveryCat Health Foundation, it’s continuing its mandate to support research into the health and well-being of pet, shelter and community cats. The organization hopes the new name will help them to reach a broader audience and fund more research to improve the lives of hundreds of millions of cats around the world. In fact, almost everything your veterinarian does or that you know about cat nutrition or health has often been the result of the organization’s work. For more information about ECHF, visit

-- The Financial Times reports that peripatetic pets have been stranded around the world, thanks to COVID-19-related canceled flights and rising air freight costs. Because of fewer flights, pets are going to the back of the line, canceled in favor of more essential cargo such as medical supplies and manufacturing equipment, writes reporter Philip Georgiadis. The cost of flying a dog in cargo from Los Angeles to London has tripled -- to $6,500 -- according to one pet transportation company. And a dog in Brunei suffered the ultimate insult, being removed from a flight and replaced by cats belonging to a Saudi prince. Oh, the indignity! Our advice for pet owners with deep pockets? Charter flights so animals can travel in safety and comfort -- in the cabin.

-- Thinking about getting a bird? The second edition of “Birds for Dummies” (full disclosure: Kim is one of the authors) has a chapter on the best birds for beginners. They are canaries and finches (which are related species), budgies (parakeets), chickens, cockatiels, Quaker parakeets, Poicephalus parrots and parrotlets (both on the small side for parrots), Pionus parrots, Pyrrhura conures, Amazon parrots and peach-faced lovebirds. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.