In the past year, over 70 dogs in Maricopa County have been diagnosed with a bacterial disease that can also spread to humans – and the number of outbreaks is on the rise.

According to the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, the disease, leptospirosis, or “lepto,” spreads through urine, urine-contaminated water or wet soil. Dogs with leptospirosis can sometimes contain the harmful bacteria in their urine for months without showing any symptoms.

Symptoms of leptospirosis in dogs include fever, lack of energy, lack of appetite, red eyes, vomiting, diarrhea, frequent urination, excessive drinking and abdominal pain.

State veterinarian Peter Mundschenk said the 70 reported cases mostly have been from the Scottsdale and Phoenix areas, and a new cluster has appeared in Tucson. Three dogs have been euthanized, but it is unknown what the reasons for euthanasia were.

He said many of the outbreaks have been associated with boarding and day care in pet facilities because of the high concentration of animals in these environments.

“Lepto thrives in a warm, moist environment and can stay infective for a long time if the environment is right,” Mundschenk said in an email. “It could be that the increased moisture we had this winter, and the irrigation and warm weather would allow the bacteria to survive in the environment.”

There is a vaccine available for leptospirosis, and Mundschenk said boarding and day care facilities may consider starting to require proof of a leptospirosis vaccine. The vaccine protects animals from the disease for one year.

Jeff Jenkins, a veterinarian at Ahwatukee Animal Care Hospital, says there are different varieties of lepto. He said symptoms aren’t unique, so sometimes veterinarians may not realize lepto is the underlying problem right away. 

“The vaccine covers the four most common strains of the disease,” Jenkins said. “Once vaccinated, the chances of getting sick are very, very slim.”

Dogs at risk for exposure are ones that have had contact with areas potentially contaminated by rodent, wildlife or farm animal urine, dogs that swim in potentially contaminated water sources and dogs that visit dog parks and boarding facilities.

Even dogs in completely urban settings can be exposed to rodent urine, according to Mundschenk.

Barb Savoy, public relations director for the Friends for Life Animal Rescue in Gilbert, said the shelter has avoided any incidents of leptospirosis so far.

She related the decision of whether or not to vaccinate a dog for lepto to parents’ decisions to vaccinate their children, and said it can be very personal from household to household.

“The more we have not vaccinated, the more we’re putting at risk,” Savoy said.

The Arizona Animal Welfare Clinic will distribute leptospirosis vaccinations for $20 between 7:30 and 11:30 a.m. Saturday, June 17, at the main shelter, 25 N. 40th St., Phoenix.  The clinics are held the third Saturday of every month.

A second booster shot is needed two to four weeks after the initial vaccination, which the clinic will also provide.

The most recent leptospirosis clinic the organization held was in February, but it was stocked with only 50 doses. Saturday’s vaccination clinic is expected to carry more doses, but they will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

Most people who contract leptospirosis from dogs will not get sick until a week after exposure to the bacteria, but symptoms can appear anywhere from two to 30 days after contact.

However, all the testing the Arizona Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have done on exposed humans have come back negative for the disease, according to Mundschenk.

Leptospirosis in humans can cause fever, headache, chills, severe muscle pain, red eyes, rash, yellow eyes and skin, vomiting, diarrhea and liver or kidney damage in severe cases.

Leptospirosis in cats is rare, according to the Arizona Veterinary Medical Association. The AVMA website said new cases outside Scottsdale and Phoenix are being reported in other cities throughout the Valley, including Gilbert, Tempe, Litchfield Park, Fountain Hills and Avondale.

People who work in jobs with frequent contact with animals should wear protective equipment such as gloves, facemasks and gowns when caring for ill patients or animals, especially if they are responsible for cleaning up bodily fluids, according to the Maricopa County Department of Public Health website.

Infected dogs placed in boarding facilities or daycares should be placed in floor-level kennels and away from high-traffic areas.

Jenkins cautioned that many animal clinics don’t vaccinate for lepto.

“We recommend people are going to the southeast or northeast U.S. or Texas get their dogs vaccinated because they were having problems there,” he said, adding pet owners can administer the vaccine themselves.

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