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Our Oregon Coast Sees a Rise in Sea Lion Deaths Caused by Leptospirosis Infection: Protect Your Dogs and Family

There has been an increase in Leptospirosis (Lepto) infections in sea lions and other marine wildlife along the Oregon Coast recently. This has raised the awareness of the need to take precautions, including immunization, of family dogs to protect against this deadly disease.

Leptospirosis infections can cause severe infections and death. It infects certain kinds of mammals, including sea lions, dogs, rodents, and humans. So far, this infection hasn't been a concern for cats. Since I am not a human physician questions about Leptospirosis in people should be discussed with your physician. But any infection that can be transferred between animals and people should make all of us concerned enough to learn more, in order to keep both our human and our furry family safe and healthy.

Leptospirosis infection causes severe damage to the kidneys, liver and other organs. It is most commonly acquired by contact with the urine, or substances contaminated by urine, from infected animals. Like many infections, there is a period of time after exposure where dogs may show no signs of illness at all. But if an infection develops, approximately 4 to 10 days AFTER getting infected, your dog may show signs of fever, loss of appetite, aches and pains, and can generally just look depressed and sick. Many dogs will get worse quickly as the bacteria infects the kidneys and causes kidney failure. When this happens, your dog may start vomiting and become dehydrated.

Kidney failure can also be very painful, so dogs may arch their backs or cry out when they are lifted or their bellies are touched. It's confusing but kidney failure doesn't always mean that your dog stops being able to urinate. In some cases, your dog may drink and urinate more than normal, but that is due to the kidneys losing their ability to concentrate urine normally. In other cases, your dog may urinate very little or not at all. There are other symptoms as well, but they can vary in each dog.

Because the infection takes days to appear, it may not be obvious at first why your normally happy and healthy dog suddenly isn't well. Sometimes the early illness is mistaken for other conditions, such as the aches and pains (i.e. an arthritis flare up) following an active weekend at the beach, rather than as a Leptospirosis infection. If your pet acts ill, particularly after a trip to the beach, be sure to let us know at Grove Veterinary Clinic that you have been at the beach with your pet.

How should you help protect yourself and your dogs from Lepto infection? Use caution when you visit the coastline and beach. Watch for wildlife along the beach and do not approach wildlife closer than 50 feet. That may mean keeping your dog on a leash as you walk. Remember that some sea lions on the beach may be ill, dying or dead, and nothing attracts a dog's attention like a dead animal! Avoid swimming in or drinking from the standing, brackish water by the coast; this means water at the beach but also water in rivers and streams at the coast.


There is a vaccination available that can help to protect your dog from infection. As a general rule, a dog that has never had Leptospirosis immunization should receive a minimum series of two vaccines containing Leptospirosis, administered approximately 2 to 4 weeks apart, in order to develop protective levels of immunity. After that, your dog should be boostered annually to maintain adequate levels of immunity. Due to the current situation, the veterinarians at Grove Veterinary Clinic are recommending leptospirosis vaccination for dogs that frequent the beach and other bodies of water that could potentially be contaminated (i.e. lakes, rivers, streams, free standing bodies of water). Dogs that have the potential to be in contact with the urine of infected wildlife species (rats, raccoons, skunks, sea lions, etc.) should also be vaccinated.

Oregon Public Broadcasting recently aired a piece where they quote Jim Rice of the Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network reported 350 sea lion strandings last year, for a variety of reasons, including disease. There have been 10 sea lion deaths confirmed in the last week alone (November 10, 2010). OPB also quotes the Centers for Disease Control as saying there are between 50 and 100 human cases of Leptospirosis in the U.S. every year. A third of those were traced to contact with infected dogs. Another third are believed to have resulted from contact with infected rats.

Even though this story is about coastal Leptospirosis infections, keep in mind that Leptospirosis is found in other places, too. Any areas where animal urine can be left behind poses a health concern, particularly in the many natural areas that we enjoy hiking and camping in here in the Pacific Northwest.

Please talk to our veterinarians at Grove Veterinary Clinic about Leptospirosis infections and how to best protect your dogs from this disease. Give us a call at 541-265-2381 or come down to the clinic to find out more.


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