Rivanna River

Daily Progress file

The Rivanna River is seen near Riverview Park.

CHARLOTTESVILLE — A common bacteria carried by wildlife and passed into soil through urination is being blamed for the death of a dog in Albemarle County — and veterinarians are recommending that dogs that are often near lakes and rivers be vaccinated.

The dog reportedly had spent a play day at the Rivanna River and apparently contracted leptospirosis and died about a week later, veterinarians said.

Veterinarians said owners whose dogs spend time near rivers, lakes or on farms should consider having their pets vaccinated for the bacteria. Owners should also be careful as the bacteria can be transmitted to people and because the canine vaccines are not always 100% effective due to the wide variety of leptospira.

“The decision to vaccinate for leptospirosis should be based on consultation with a veterinarian about the dog’s lifestyle,” said Dr. Martin Betts, with the Charlottesville Veterinary Hospital. “If a dog always walks on a leash, doesn’t leave a yard and lives more of an urban life, there’s probably not much need. If the dog goes near a river or is near wildlife, it’s something to consider.”

Leptospirosis joins cyanobacteria, harmful algae found in lakes and ponds, as an issue for Central Virginia dog owners and swimmers. The Mint Springs Valley Park swimming beach has been closed by Albemarle County’s Department of Parks and Recreation due to an algae bloom. The swimming area will not reopen for swimming until there are two consecutive samples below safe swimming levels for both cell densities and toxins.

Much of Lake Anna in Louisa County is under swimming advisories for the same type of algae. The algae blooms were discovered by routine water testing by the Virginia Department of Health.

Leptospirosis, however, is not easy to track. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leptospirosis is caused by a spirochete bacterium that lives in mammalian kidneys, especially those of rodents. The bacteria are expelled during urination and can live in soil and water for as long as a month.

“Because of increased building and development into areas that were previously rural, pets may be exposed to more wildlife, such as raccoons, skunks, squirrels, opossums or deer that are infected with leptospirosis,” the CDC warned. “Dogs also may pass the disease to each other, but this happens very rarely.”

According to the American Veterinary Medicine Association, canines walking near or playing in rivers or lakes are most at risk.

“Common risk factors include exposure to or drinking from rivers, lakes or streams; roaming on rural properties; exposure to wild animal or farm animal species, even if in the backyard; and contact with rodents or other dogs,” the AVMA states on its website. “Leptospirosis in cats is rare and appears to be mild, although very little is known about the disease in this species.”

In dogs, leptospirosis can lead to kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, respiratory distress and death.

The time between exposure to the bacteria and development of disease is usually five to 14 days for dogs, but it can be as short as a few days or as long as 30 days or more. Symptoms include fever, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, refusal to eat, severe weakness, depression, stiffness and severe muscle pain.

“[Leptospirosis] is easily killed if we get it in the early stages of the disease, but, unfortunately, that doesn’t happen often,” Betts said. “The early symptoms are pretty general, so it’s difficult for owners to recognize.”

In humans, the disease can cause a wide range of symptoms that are easily mistaken for something else. Some people may have no symptoms at all. Symptoms can include a high fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, vomiting, jaundice, diarrhea and rash.

In humans, it can take between two days to four weeks between exposure and the development of symptoms. Treatment with tetracycline and penicillin is effective for both canines and humans, but no human vaccine is available.

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