When we have a -30C windchill and snow on the ground, my first thoughts usually aren’t about survival of bacteria in the outdoor environment. However, some microorganisms are well adapted for survival in various adverse conditions and we shouldn’t assume that cold=dead for every bug of concern. Along that line, we received a question recently about survival of Leptospira and I passed it along to our lepto expert, Dr. John Prescott. Here’s his guest post:
A reader in Ohio owns a dog that had leptospirosis, and had some questions about leptospirosis that may be of general interest.
Q1. Since the yard is likely contaminated with leptospires, she asked “How cold does the temperature have to get before the Lepto organisms are killed?”
A1. Once it’s frozen, as it is now in January, they’re dead. Leptospires are fragile bacteria that are killed by dry heat and by freezing. They survive well in moist or wet environments, with moderate temperatures. In some countries leptospirosis is called “mud fever” or “fall fever” since this description captures so well the environmental conditions under which they thrive.
Although leptospirosis in dogs can occur at any time in the year, it mainly causes disease in the fall, late September to December, peaking in November. The increasingly mild and prolonged falls that we have experienced in the last decade are thought to be an important reason that leptospirosis has resurged in dogs. Interestingly, there is often a “blip” of leptospirosis in dogs in March in Ontario (and likely Ohio), since this is when the snow melts and conditions are wet, even though we can still get freezing at that time. I suspect that this is also the time when the raccoons that are thought to be the main source of leptospirosis for dogs are again active after the winter, and are foraging for food for themselves and their babies.
Q2. Do dogs still shed leptospires after they’ve been treated?
A2. No. Leptospires are quickly killed by the antibiotics used in treatment, amoxicillin or doxycycline. There is no danger that dogs treated for a week with these drugs are a risk to people or other animals. You may read in otherwise very reputable textbooks that these antibiotics “do not eliminate the carrier state” but I have no idea where this misunderstanding comes from.
Q3. Where can I find out more about leptospirosis in dogs?
A3. I like the web site http://www.leptoinfo.com, which is maintained by a vaccine company. I was surprised how many web sites devoted to leptospirosis that there are, but like much on the internet some contain highly misleading information. The “Worms & Germs” site has good past blogs about canine leptospirosis and is usually (just kidding, Scott) a reliable source of information.
One very common entrenched misconception, which is very hard to kill, is that vaccination does not stop animals shedding the organism. This is quite wrong. I suspect this misconception came from an experimental study half a century ago when dogs with pre-existing kidney infection with a leptospiral serovar called Canicola were vaccinated. It would not be expected by anyone that these animals would stop shedding since antibodies don’t penetrate into the place in the kidney where the leptospires live and from which they are shed in the urine. What vaccination does incredibly effectively is to prevent leptospires from actually reaching the kidney and setting up home there. The leptospires are removed by antibodies in the blood, so they never reach the kidney.