October 31, 2021
By Tony J. Peterson
If some bad actors out there were to design a bacterial infection to target duck dogs, he would make it thrive in marshy, muddy areas. He’d also cue it up to be most prevalent in the fall. Lastly, the bacteria would be most dangerous to any dogs that take a swim in, or a sip of, the infected water.
Enter leptospirosis, a bacterial infection that checks all those boxes and more. Lepto symptoms range so widely, that it is an easy candidate for misdiagnosis. Or equally as bad, a delayed trip to the vet clinic on the grounds that things do not seem overly serious and will probably clear up on their own. Fever, sore or stiff muscles, general weakness, vomiting, coughing, runny nose, diarrhea, and even depression are just some of the symptoms of lepto. Full-blown infections can bloom into a renal disease (affecting the kidneys), hemorrhagic disease, or an icteric disease that attacks the liver. In other words, you do not want your retriever to contract leptospirosis.
The problem is prevention of the disease isn’t cut-and-dry.
Leptospirosis Vaccination Dilemma
With any vaccine these days, you can run a quick Google search and find horror stories mixed in with educated and uneducated opinions. But Dr. Google isn’t the best route for quality information catered to individual situations, so you should talk to your veterinarian about whether your duck dog is a good candidate. That’s what I did with my young Labrador retriever, and he explained to me fully what the efficacy was and what the potential side effects were.
It turns out, the lepto vaccine doesn’t guarantee immunity. Far from it. For a long time, the best we had was an option that prevented infection from a couple of serovars (strains) of leptospirosis, but there is currently an option that can handle four of the more common serovars. This is the vaccine most widely recommend by the experts in veterinary medicine.
Side effects of the vaccine, however, can range from mild reactions that result in a couple of days of lethargy and/or appetite loss, to a more severe reaction that is not unlike anaphylactic shock. The latter is rare in the kinds of dog breeds most likely to sit at your side in a duck blind, thankfully.
Essentially, you’ve got some nasty bacteria strains that are potentially living in the same places you’ll work your retriever on double blinds throughout the fall, provided the ducks cooperate. Knowing that, it’s best to have a lay-it-all-on-the-table chat with your veterinarian.
Medical professionals, even those folks who only treat four-legged patients, are masters at extracting relevant information, even when it isn’t readily forthcoming. They do this because they care about their patients, and the more they know, the easier that is.
So, make it easy for them. Have a real, honest discussion about the environments and locations your retriever hunts in, trains at, or might just take a quick dip in while you’re out on a not-so-serious nature hike. Leptospirosis needs a specific kind of environment to really take hold, and your dog might not get anywhere near it.
For example, if you live out west in a relatively dry environment, the odds of a lepto exposure might be low. But what if you take a week-long trip every year to the flooded timber of Arkansas to scratch your duck itch? That’s information worth injecting into the conversation, because even though a trip like that doesn’t make up much of your dog’s year, it’s a potential exposure opportunity. That’s also an ideal situation for misdiagnosis, because in some regions, lepto will be low on the list of likely culprits for why your dog is sick.
It’s up to us to decide on the risk/reward of a vaccination for our individual dogs, and the best way to make the right choice is to consult an actual expert in the field. If you choose to pass, make sure you’re aware of the symptoms of lepto and how your dog could be exposed to it. Treatment will involve at least one round of antibiotics, which works best if started early. This often helps alleviate some of the discomfort, but rarely prevents a trip to the emergency clinic or the veterinary hospital for long-term care, because leptospirosis is no joke when it enters a duck dog’s system.