Having a dog means worrying about his or her health--the chicken bone or some other unmentionable substance he gobbled before you could stop him, the fetid puddle she lapped unconcernedly from, the constant intimate contact with the bodily orifices of strange dogs. Their constitutions are an enduring wonderment--so much more robust than ours in many respects, yet far more fragile in others. And all the more mysterious because they never talk about their health (as we do, incessantly).
At least children above a certain age will tell you in words if they feel sick, but even if dogs could talk, they might not tell you about their aches and pains, because as pack animals, their social status depends partly on their physical vigor. They sometimes learn to feign injury or sickness in order to win sympathy, but they are just as likely to try and conceal genuine illness, out of fear of being left behind. You have to learn to recognize the signs that something's amiss with your canine chums, and the sooner the better, for both them and your bank balance.
We are repeatedly faced with a two-pronged fear--the first being "What if I lose my dog before he's had his proper mortal span?"--the second being "If he gets really sick, can I afford the medical bills?" Actually, pretty much the same fears we face with ourselves and our human family members, only without even the most rudimentary forms of socialized medicine to fall back on--we can buy pet insurance, but it's still a pretty slender reed to cling to. As veterinary techniques grow ever more sophisticated, the bills grow correspondingly ever more imposing. And our choices grow more difficult. It's easy to let fear take over--don't let your dog play with other dogs, don't let him offleash, don't take him to dog runs, etc. Instead of actively seeking better health for our dogs, we shy away from dimly perceived threats. Then get on the trains and buses and take our chances with the swine flu.
And sometimes we over-vaccinate, something I increasingly suspect I did with my last dog Peggy, who was indestructibly healthy up until the age of 10, then passed very quickly of an internal growth that burst a major blood vessel. Because I paid for every shot any vet ever suggested, most of which she probably never needed at all? I don't know. Maybe it was just her time to go. Not sorry I vaccinated her for rabies/parvo/distemper, but I sure wish I'd passed on most of the rest.
The New York Daily News just published this article about some recently reported local cases of Leptospirosis --a few dogs have gotten sick, two in Brooklyn have died. It's a serious matter, though nothing new, and affecting a tiny percentage of dogs. Authorities aren't even calling it an outbreak--it's just more cases than usual for our area, largely due to the excessive rainfall we've had this year. And there's another culprit being fingered--fenced dog runs (or dog parks, as they are increasingly being called).
Vets are a bit wary of dog runs--not without reason. They are, after all, places where large numbers of dogs pee and poop constantly, and like any schoolyard or playground, are an obvious suspect when a new strain of something nasty is making the rounds.
But not all runs are the same. Some have excellent drainage, some do not. Some are visited regularly by mice and rats, others are not. Some are kept scrupulously clean, others (regrettably) are not.
The Rocky Run has excellent drainage, not much of a rodent problem, and is mainly kept very clean. And far as anybody I've talked to knows, none of our regulars have come down with leptospirosis (and I'd really like to know as soon as possible if any of them do).
If your dog gets leptospirosis, it's going to be very cold comfort that most dogs in the area are unaffected--same as you'd feel if you actually became deathly ill with Swine Flu or West Nile Encephilitis, though most people never will. What can you do to prevent your dog from becoming one of the few unlucky pooches?
1)Learn the symptoms (see above links) and watch for them. Early diagnosis and treatment can minimize the danger considerably. Of course, there are other less serious problems that can lead to some of the same symptoms. Don't panic every time your dog throws up. But take note of it when he does.
2)TRY to keep your dog from lapping at puddles, particularly when they aren't fresh. Yeah, no small feat, even if your dog is on a leash 24/7. Puddles are everywhere lately. Bring water with you to the run, and be sure to rinse out the bowl before filling it. Fill in any holes the dogs dig immediately--without holes, there will be no puddles, no matter how much it rains. One of the great advantages of having the run situated where it is, atop a steep slope leading down to the highway.
3)Discourage your dog from eating dirt as well, though of course they are all going to ingest a bit. Just do your best, and we'll see if we can get the Parks Department to dump the next load of wood chips right over the muddy area that keeps getting exposed.
4)Try even harder to make sure that every last bit of excrement ends up inside a plastic bag, and outside the run. Not just your dog's excrement. Nearly all of us do a great job picking up after our dogs, but it's easy for a dog to squat for a moment without anyone noticing. If you see some unclaimed poop, and have a bag to spare, get rid of it. Somebody will do the same for you sometime. It's good karma!
5)Under no circumstances board your dog in a kennel.
6)Did I mention that you shouldn't panic?
But what some veterinarians will say is "Vaccinate your dog for leptospirosis. Don't let him/her offleash. Don't take him/her to a dog park. Don't let him/her interact with strange dogs." Etc. Etc.
But the current vaccine doesn't work for all strains, probably including the strain that killed those dogs in Brooklyn. Offleash activities improve a dog's overall physical fitness and emotional well-being, which leads to a stronger immune system. Poorly socialized dogs who aren't at ease in the presence of their own species feel more stress, which plays as much havoc with their immune systems as it does ours.
Good health is not simply a matter of avoiding potential negatives--it's much more about actively seeking positives. Dogs naturally love exercise and social activities, and to deprive them of this for the sake of their health is wildly counterproductive, to say the least. Particularly since the 'dozens' of local dogs (number currently unknown) who have contracted this disease so far this year--out of the perhaps one million dogs in the city--well, are you wearing a surgical mask in the subway? Your chances of catching swine flu are at least as good as your dog's of catching leptospirosis, assuming you take modest precautions against both diseases. And did you know most of the confirmed swine flu cases in the U.S. are right here in New York City? So did your doctor tell you to move to the country and become a recluse?
The efficacy of the surgical masks has also been questioned. And swine flu, thus far, has not proven to be such a serious threat. It, like leptospirosis, is nothing new--dogs and humans alike can cope with infectious diseases, having encountered so many in our travels together--we do a much better job spreading them than succumbing to them.
Like any doctor, it's a vet's duty to warn you of every potential consequence, and to make you aware of every possible treatment. It's a vet's business to administer vaccinations, which the veterinary pharmaceutical companies go to some pains to promote, and which every vet has to keep stocked up on, at no small expense to the practice. A good vet knows where to draw the line between duty and business. But remember, they're learning as they go as well. Nobody knows your dog like you do. And only you can decide what's best for him.
Max, get out of that puddle.