If your cat is contending with a kidney ailment, testing his hunting skills outdoors or co-existing with dogs who like hiking in the woods in the home, he may be at risk for a rare but serious bacterial infection known as leptospirosis.
The spiral-shaped leptospira bacteria can burrow into the skin and spread through the blood to damage the kidneys and liver. Young cats and those with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable. In addition, the disease can be transmitted to people — particularly children — from exposure to infected urine from dogs, cats and wildlife. Cats may also contract leptospirosis by licking their muddy paws after walking in soil contaminated with the bacteria.
“The leptospirosis bacteria can survive in water and wet soil for weeks to months, particularly stagnant water,” says Meredith Miller, DVM, ACVIM, board-certified internist and lecturer in small animal medicine at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Good Hygiene. These risk factors demonstrate the need to supervise your cat’s outdoor access and practice good hygiene when cleaning the litter box or feline urine on flooring in your home. Wearing rubber gloves to avoid contact with urine and thoroughly washing your hands after scooping the litter box can reduce your risk of contracting leptospirosis.
While mammals worldwide are at risk for becoming infected with the leptospira bacteria, cats seems more resistant to developing the disease. It’s more prevalent in cattle, swine, dogs and horses. However, veterinarians and health scientists say that cats who have access to outdoors and drink water in stagnant ponds or lakes or who hunt and kill rodents are more susceptible than cats who stay exclusively indoors.
The reason cats rarely develop leptospirosis remains a mystery, but Dr. Miller points out that cats have been shown to develop antibodies in their blood against the bacterial infection. “Although cats rarely show clinical disease, a recent study demonstrated that a higher percentage of cats with kidney disease were positive for leptospira antibodies compared to healthy cats,” Dr. Miller says. “The study suggests that leptospirosis should be considered as a potential under-diagnosed cause of kidney disease in cats.”
The Tell-tale Signs. Leptospirosis takes time — up to seven to 10 days after being exposed through infected urine — to show signs in an infected cat. Some cats may not show signs, making it to tricky to diagnose. Take your cat to your veterinarian for a complete examination if he displays any of these symptoms:
– Moving stiffly or showing pain when walking
– Coughing or wheezing
– Discharge from the nose or eyes
– Reduced appetite and water intake
Your cat’s veterinarian will likely perform blood and urine tests to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms. Expect also to be asked about your cat’s habits to help pinpoint the disease. Does he go outdoors unsupervised? Like to hunt and kill mice or rats?
While the primary treatment for leptospirosis in cats is antibiotics, some cats may also need intravenous fluids and medications to combat possible nausea, to stimulate their appetites, to correct electrolyte imbalances and to counter dehydration. The quicker your cat receives antibiotics and other necessary treatments, the faster his chance for recovery and the less likely any organs will suffer damage from the bacteria. “Fortunately, leptospirosis has not become resistant to the antibiotics we commonly use to treat it,” Dr. Miller says.
Prevention Is Key. You can’t keep your cat in a protective bubble. He needs and deserves to live in an environment that provides him with mental and physical enrichment. Consult his veterinarian to determine if he’s a candidate for the leptospirosis vaccine. And take these steps to reduce his exposure to leptospira:
– Note any subtle changes in his behavior and book wellness examinations with his veterinarian at least once a year, ideally, twice a year.
– Do not allow your cat or other pet in your household to drink from puddles, lakes or other water sources that may be contaminated. In a multi-pet household, a dog returning from a hike can have the bacteria on his paws and can pass it on to an indoor-only cat.
– Work with a pet-friendly pest control company to reduce the chance of mice, rats or other rodents on your property. Your cat may develop this disease if he comes into contact with an infected rodent.
– Always wash your hands in warm, soapy water after cleaning up a pet mess or the litter box.
– Clean and dry food and water bowls daily.
– Avoid picking up or handling stray cats you encounter outdoors.