(Editor’s note: We first posted this during the record drought year of 2018. It’s updated here with additional information.)
Since we founded Dispatches in 2016, the North Brabant region which includes our headquarters city of Eindhoven has had spring droughts, and 2020 is no different. As of 3 June, it’s been almost three months without significant rain, though forecasters say 2020 won’t repeat the record 2018 dry spell.
This is the kind of thing you never anticipate as an expat, but with climate change comes threats to humans and even to our pets. In 2018, our neighbor had one of her dogs die, with others seriously ill.
Our friend said her veterinarian told her the dogs – Jack Russel Terriers so popular in our area – contracted Leptospirosis after drinking water contaminated with rat urine. The vet told her that during droughts and heatwaves, rats and other animals have to look for alternative water sources, including your pet’s water bowl.
Ironically, Leptospirosis is more of an issue in tropical and subtropical regions prone to flooding, and outbreaks usually occur after hurricanes and typhoons. In Europe, Leptospirosis occurs mainly in the Mediterranean and East European regions, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
But rising temperatures around the world benefit many bacterial diseases because, apparently, there’s a correlation between a warming climate and the severity of Leptospirosis outbreaks. Which makes sense when you think about it. For millennia, the Netherlands has been famously wet and cool all year round. Or as I like to say, the typical Dutch day is 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Centigrade) and cloudy, all year round. Now, we’ve experienced three summers in a row with temperatures at or above 30 degrees Centigrade, with prolonged dry spells.
Honestly, I’d never heard of Leptospirosis, and we have two dogs. Our neighbor lives only about 100 meters away and Leptospirosis is infectious. So, we immediately started researching.
Here’s what we found out via Google and other sources:
• Leptospirosis is a bacterium that can infect humans and animals. According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, it’s tough to diagnose in dogs, because the symptoms are similar to other conditions: A sudden fever, sore muscles, lack of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea and other symptoms. From all the literature we read, cats don’t appear to be at as great a risk unless they feed on rodents in fields, and even then, don’t tend to fall ill.
• The infection can be passed to dogs through rats and other rodents and domesticated farm animals, including horses, and wild animals. Infected animals might have no outward symptoms. BUT, infected animals may continue to excrete the bacteria continuously – or every once in a while – for a few months up to several years, according to the CDC website. Humans can get infected through contact with urine (or other body fluids, except saliva) from infected animals.
• Without treatment, Leptospirosis can lead to kidney damage, meningitis (inflammation of the membrane around the brain and spinal cord), liver failure, respiratory distress, and as we saw with our neighbor’s dogs, death.
• We saved the unsettling news for last: Yes, you can vaccinate dogs (but not cats) against Leptospirosis, but current vaccines don’t provide 100-percent protection. This is because there are many strains of the bacteria that cause Leptospirosis (and they’re constantly mutating), vaccines can’t provide total immunity.
Still, the CDC recommends getting your dog vaccinated again even if it gets Leptospirosis.
• The good news is, Leptospirosis is easily treated if diagnosed early enough with readily available antibiotics. But diagnosis is tricky, because of the time between exposure and when symptoms appear.
Symptoms usually develop within five to 14 days, but the time between exposure and when your dog develops symptoms might be as short as a few days or as long as 30 days – or longer, according to the CDC. Also, the chances you’ll contract the disease from your pet are minimal as long as you don’t come into contact with its urine, blood or exposed tissue. Even if you are unfortunate enough to get it, Leptospirosis is more easily diagnosed in humans, and again, easily treated with antibiotics.
Now that you know about Leptospirosis, you can take steps toward avoiding it by:
• not leaving pets’ water bowls outside.
• not letting pets do what I’m guilty of … drink from ponds, canals or puddles, assuming it ever rains again.
• not letting them swim in the ponds and canal. I know this is tough because so many dogs love it. But where we live, the water is usually contaminated by farm runoff.
My main takeaway from this is you never see these things coming. Our neighbors’ dogs were so sweet and I’m glad we spent a lot of time with them. Still, their deaths hit us like a gut punch. I’m just really thankful we have close friends in our buurt (neighborhood) who keep us posted on everything.
Otherwise, we’d have never know about Leptospirosis or how to keep our dogs – and ourselves – safe.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.