Fears of ‘Lepto’ in Arizona Highlight Risks Canines Face at Dog Parks


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Humans are at risk of falling sick, too.

At least eight dogs and likely more than that in the greater Tucson area have fallen sick over the last month with bacterial leptospirosis, or “lepto,” which can result in flu-like lassitude and lack of appetite. Lepto can quickly turn fatal in dogs and can infect humans as well.

Reports of the bacteria have been bubbling up in Tucson for the last month, but on Tuesday news came that the popular Udall dog park in northeast Tucson recently hosted an infected dog, leading officials to suspect that many other dogs in the area are now at risk for infection.

No dog in the area has yet died of the bacteria, according to officials, and there are no reports of lepto-infected humans.

The canine infection spreads through urine excreted by dogs and wild animals—most commonly raccoons, skunks and coyotes—often contaminating standing water. If left untreated, the bacteria can lead to organ failure.

In humans, the infection can lead to jaundice and manifests as achy feverishness and chills. It is treated with antibiotics.

Earlier in the year, outbreaks of lepto swept through different parts of the country.

Scottsdale, 100 miles north of Tucson, was the center of a lepto outbreak in February, reporting more than 40 confirmed cases and additional cases in nearby cities, including Phoenix, Gilbert, Tempe, Litchfield Park, Fountain Hills and Avondale.  

Also in February, local news site Hoodline in San Francisco reported a rare outbreak of the disease. Reporters wrote that the bacteria was “rampant” in the city, due in part perhaps to heavy rainfall.

The same month, the New York City Health Department reported a “cluster” of three cases in humans in the Concourse area of the Bronx. One person reportedly died from the infection and two others fell seriously ill. The department said the bacteria was commonly spread in the city by rats and reported that department personnel were coordinating response with staffers at city housing and building agencies to “reduce the rat population” in the area and to educate residents about lepto precautions and treatments.

Health authorities in Vermont are also monitoring for lepto.

"It's something that's seen a lot more in temperate and tropical climates than it is here in Vermont," Bradley Tompkins, an infectious disease epidemiologist with the Vermont Health Department, said in an April interview with WCAX-TV. However, as more cases of lepto pop up around the world, tracking it in the Green Mountain State is certainly warranted, Tompkins told the Burlington television station.

Pima County, which includes Tucson, is taking its recent outbreak seriously. Staffers have been placed on “high alert” and are carefully monitoring dogs held at the county shelter. Officials also reportedly are coordinating the county response with the city of Tucson, the state veterinarian and the state health and agriculture departments.

According to the Arizona Daily Star, the bacteria has been “virtually unheard of in the area,” so local veterinarians have never recommended the lepto vaccine as part of a normal canine health regimen. Many dog owners, acting on veterinarian recommendations, are now vaccinating their pets against the infection as a precaution.

Pima County has warned dog owners in the vicinity of Udall Park but it hasn’t closed it or apparently any other dog park in the area, which is perhaps unsurprising.

Dog parks around the nation are mostly subject to little regulation. They’re often created by local residents and informally recognized and monitored by authorities.

According to Michigan State University Animal Legal & Historical Center researchers who have studied the issue over roughly the last five years, the District of Columbia stands out for having issued “comprehensive municipal regulations on the application process of creating a dog park, what elements dog parks must have, how complaints are to be dealt with, and how rules are to be enforced.”  

The lepto outbreak in Arizona comes as a canine flu spreads in states in the south and the midwest. The so-called H3N2 influenza afflicted more than 1,000 dogs in the Chicago area in 2015. Vets have now confirmed cases in Florida, Georgia and Texas. More than a dozen cases have been linked to appearances at dog shows.

John Tomasic is a journalist who lives in Boulder, Colorado.

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