Lyme and Lepto

By Dawn Singleton-Olson
February, 2015

Help prepare your veterinary customers for protecting and treating pets from these two expanding diseases

Lyme disease and leptospirosis are two canine diseases you may not talk about often with your customers – particularly at the same time. But they share some common traits that make them worth discussing with your clients, since both are on the increase as people and their pets move into areas where they are apt to encounter wildlife. Both are vector-borne, zoonotic diseases that can cause severe illness in both dogs and humans, and both are caused by an order of bacteria called spirochetes – slender, corkscrew-shaped, undulating bacteria. Knowing the facts about how these diseases are transmitted, their prevention and treatment will make you a great asset to your veterinary customers in keeping their canine – and human – customers protected from two expanding diseases.



Leptospirosis is likely present across most of the United States, except in true desert regions, and is most prevalent in warm, wet and humid climates. Leptospira are found in both wild and domestic animals, such as pigs and cattle, and there are at least four species of the leptospira bacteria (or serovars) that can infect dogs: canicola, icterohemorrhagiae, grippotyphosa, and pomona. Most dogs are exposed to leptospirosis in environments contaminated by urine of wild animal hosts, including raccoons, opossums, mice, voles, rats, skunks, squirrels, deer, and foxes. The bacteria often make their way into water sources, and remain infective in the soil for up to six months. Spirochetes enter a dog’s system through a break in the skin or when the dog drinks contaminated water. Dogs who spend a lot of time in the water are at increased risk, but so are dogs who simply drink out of puddles or who spend time in yards that stay damp after it rains. If a dog goes outside, it can be exposed – all it takes is contact with one wild animal’s contaminated urine.

Clinical signs appear 4 to 12 days after exposure, but mild infections may never show signs. Fever is present in early stages, and other signs may include loss of appetite, vomiting, lethargy, muscle pain, and sometimes diarrhea or blood in the urine. Leptospirosis primarily affects the kidneys and/or liver and can cause acute renal failure in dogs. It is treated with antibiotics, but with severe infections, significant organ damage may occur before the antibiotics can clear the infection. Following recovery, untreated dogs can become carriers and shed bacteria in their urine for up to a year. Since leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease, family members and other pets are at risk of infection.

Older vaccines for leptospirosis contained proteins that sometimes caused a reaction in dogs. Newer vaccines are purified and result in fewer reactions, but many veterinarians still prefer to give leptospirosis separately from other vaccines – especially in smaller dogs. There are many options available – in combination and as a single vaccine – so be sure to familiarize yourself with the choices your company offers. Today, most vaccines protect against all four strains of leptospirosis, but there are some still available that protect against just two strains, so make sure your customers are aware of the difference.


Lyme disease

Lyme disease was first diagnosed in dogs 25 years ago and is now one of the most common canine tick-borne diseases. The greatest risk for Lyme disease is in the Northeast, but it has also shown up in northern California, the Oregon coast, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Newer hotspots are appearing in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and North Dakota.

The deer tick or blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) is the only known transmitter of Lyme disease in the United States. Ticks need a blood meal to reproduce, and the trail of infection begins when they bite an infected host – often a rodent – and acquire the Lyme bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi. The next time they bite, they inject the bacterium into their new host.

In their two-year lifespan, ticks feed on the blood of hosts during three growth stages: larval, nymphal and adult. Nymph season is from May through August, and they tend to lurk in moist leaf litter or near the edge of wooded areas. Due to their tiny size, they can be difficult to detect. Only repeated exposure to nymphs causes infection in dogs.

Adult ticks pose the biggest threat to dogs in early spring and fall, but can seek hosts in the winter when temperatures rise above freezing. After a tick attaches and begins to feed, spirochetes in the midgut of the tick migrate to the salivary glands and then into the host. A single bite from a contaminated tick can cause disease, but there is believed to be little danger of infection during the first 12-24 hours of the tick being embedded. Quick removal drastically reduces the risk.

Lyme disease in dogs is often “silent” with no outward signs of infection. The incubation period is generally fromtwo to five months after exposure. Clinical signs can include lameness or arthritis, fever, swollen joints, weakness and kidney failure in severe cases. Dogs typically respond well to antibiotic treatment.

Fortunately, there are many highly effective tick preventive products available to protect dogs and their owners from the dangers of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. Oncea- month topical insecticides, sprays, traditional or long-duration collars, and shampoos, dips and rinses to help rid the animal of ticks are all products to know and discuss with your customers. Be prepared to talk about vaccines and in-clinic tests for Lyme disease – both available as disease-specific products or in combination. For now, Lyme disease may be concentrated in certain areas of the United States, but with so many people traveling with their pets, your veterinary customers across the country have a great opportunity to educate their clients about the potential risks of tick-borne disease and increase revenue by recommending these products. And don’t limit discussions about Lyme disease and Leptospirosis to only your companion animal clinics. Large animal practitioners will appreciate the information for their customers with farm, ranch or hunting dogs who may be at high risk for disease.

As more people and their pets move into areas previously uninhabited by people and travel with their dogs, exposure to wildlife and the pathogens they carry continues to increase. Your knowledge of these diseases and the products available to prevent them will make you a trusted partner to your customers.



National Alliance of Safe Pest Control at

The website  is an excellent resource. It’s updated by the University of Rhode Island Tick Encounter Resource Center and entomologist Dr. Thomas Mather, known as “the tick guy.”


Dawn Singleton-Olson has over 25 years of experience in the animal health industry, including distributor sales, manufacturing, practice management, and as a zoo supervisor. She is a volunteer, fundraiser and board trustee for several humane organizations and the Omaha (NE) Police Mounted Patrol.

Topics: Inside Sales, Companion 2015 February Vol: 7 Issue: 1


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