Microscopic dangers your pet may encounter while hiking: Leptospirosis and Giardia

By Katie Gibson, DVM

Western North Carolina is a Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts with the beautiful mountains, miles and miles of hiking trails, and scenic streams and waterfalls. And what better way to enjoy the great outdoors than with man’s best friend – your dog. But before you take Fido swimming or let him/her drink from the cool mountain stream, here are a few things you should know about some microscopic dangers that could be lurking there. 
Lakes, streams, rivers, and even puddles may contain some hidden dangers such as Leptospirosis and Giardia. Leptospirosis is a spiral shaped bacteria that is spread through the urine of infected wild and domestic animals that can cause life-threatening illness. These bacteria can get into the water and soil and can survive there for weeks. Leptospirosis can enter your pet’s body through the eyes, nose, mouth, or cuts on the skin. This commonly occurs during drinking, swimming, or walking through contaminated water. Symptoms of Leptospirosis can be vague but often consist of fever, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, decreased appetite, weakness, stiffness, and/or muscle pain. Giardia is a protozoan parasite that is commonly found in contaminated water sources. Your pet can swallow a Giardia cyst while drinking from a stream or puddle. Animals with a Giardia infection can be asymptomatic, but they often develop diarrhea.
 If your pet is showing signs of either Leptospirosis or Giardia you should seek veterinary care. There are several tests that can determine if your pet has this disease. A blood sample can be drawn and the antibody level or titers can be assessed. This organism can also be identified in the urine using a special microscope technique. Giardia can be identified by looking at a direct smear of a fecal sample under the microscope or with an ELISA test kit. Both of these organisms can be tricky to identify and multiple tests may be needed to make the diagnosis.
If your pet is found to have one of these diseases there are treatments available. Leptospirosis is a much more severe infection than Giardia and will require hospitalization, antibiotics, and hydration with intravenous fluid therapy. Giardia can be treated with several different medications with an antibiotic called metronidazole and a dewormer called fenbendazole being the most common. Some patients with Giardia may be ill enough to need fluid therapy and/or hospitalization. 
The good news is that there are things that you can do to prevent your pet from developing these nasty infections in the first place. Before heading out on the trails with your pet, be sure to see your veterinarian to be sure he/she is current on all vaccines. Distemper vaccines often include protection from leptospirosis. If your vaccine records show your pet has received a vaccine for DHLPP, the “L” indicates the leptospirosis vaccine. If the records just say DHPP, then this vaccine does not protect against leptospirosis and an additional vaccine will need to be given. There is also a vaccine for Giardia that is available. This vaccine is not considered a core vaccine, meaning that all pets do not routinely receive this vaccine. If you know your pet is going to be in area where Giardia is prevalent or he/she frequently plays in rivers, streams, etc. you may want to ask your veterinarian about this vaccine. No vaccine provides complete protection from disease, but it may decrease the risk or severity of disease.
So there is no reason not to allow your pet to participate in camping trips or fetching sticks in the river, just be sure you take preventive measures with appropriate vaccinations and know the signs of illness. If you have any questions about either Leptospirosis or Giardia you should contact your veterinarian.