How to keep your pets safe from an increased risk of infections amid persistent wet weather

By Chaffin Mitchell, AccuWeather staff writer

Record-setting rainfall in 2018 and a wet start to 2019 have increased the risk of infections in pets exposed to the elements.

"When we have flooding and other environmental changes, it may cause increases in certain types of infections such as Giardiasis or Leptospirosis, as a couple of examples," University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine’s Dr. Travis Lanaux said.

Giardia is a parasite found in water, food and soil or on surfaces contaminated with feces from an infected animal or person.

Dog playing in the mud

(Freila/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Once ingested, the parasite lives in the intestines and commonly causes diarrhea and other symptoms. Animals such as cats, dogs, cattle, deer and beavers are able to be infected. Most dogs become infected by drinking water contaminated with feces.

Outside the body, Giardia can sometimes survive for weeks or months. The parasite can be found within every region of the United States and around the world.

Dr. Mark Freeman, assistant professor of community practice at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech said many of the “infectious” pathogens pets encounter are more closely related to environment and degree of exposure rather than to the pet’s susceptibility. Therefore, periods of heavy precipitation and rain are able to increase chances of running into bacteria.

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"This does include feces-contaminated bodies of water, such as rivers, ponds, lakes, puddles and streams," Freeman said.

When the Giardia organism is at a certain stage, it is very stable in the environment and can survive for months in wet environments, especially cold water. The organism is immediately infective if ingested by a susceptible species.

"There are a number of strains of Giardia, most of which are species specific, meaning that the parasite which infects dogs and cats is rarely transmitted to humans," Freeman said.

According to Freeman, a few strains have been documented as being infective to both humans and a variety of domestic animals, particularly dogs and cats, and the human strain has been identified in the feces of dogs.

"Increased precipitation and humidity can both allow Giardia cysts to survive longer and allow them to spread more easily in the environment," Freeman said.

Freeman said this can result in significant increases in the risk for exposure to these parasites in pets and humans alike.

"Increased precipitation often allows bodies of water to overflow their borders, spreading pathogenic organisms in a wider area, and runoff from bodies of water can travel significant distances, spreading pathogens much farther from the source," Freeman said.

If diagnosed and successfully treated, Giardia is seldom fatal for dogs and cats, but both species are susceptible to persistent infections that are very difficult to clear.

Freeman said chronic, recurrent episodes of clinical signs such as diarrhea, weight loss and decreased appetite are not uncommon in these cases.

"Fortunately, most pets that are treated do clear the infection, although two course of treatment are sometimes needed," Freeman said.

"Giardia can be very difficult to identify in a fecal sample, so diagnosis is sometimes a challenge. If you know your pet is exposed to environmental water sources and wildlife and they develop clinical signs (diarrhea, weight loss, decreased appetite), Giardia should be considered as a possible cause, and the pet may benefit from treatment even if the pathogen is not identified," Freeman said.

"Leptospirosis, another bacterial pathogen transmitted in fecal-contaminated water, also more frequently results in infection in companion animals during periods of heavy precipitation, and for the same reasons," Freeman said.

This bacteria causes much more serious disease, is more easily transmitted between pets and humans and has a higher incidence of fatality associated with infection.

"Leptospirosis is generally due to urine contamination, whereas Giardiasis is due to fecal contamination. Pet owners should avoid flooded areas, especially stagnant pools," Lanaux said.

There is a Leptospirosis vaccine which is very helpful in reducing the risk for infection if exposed, and also reducing the severity of clinical signs in animals that do become infected, experts explained.

Experts say there are tips you can follow to help prevent exposure and dangerous infections in your animals, especially since there are no vaccines for Giardia.

Don’t let dogs or cats drink from outdoor water sources such as those mentioned above, take extra precautions during times of increased precipitation and be especially careful in rural and suburban settings where wildlife are common inhabitants and spreaders of the pathogen.

"Owners should also pay attention for signage with warnings at local parks and check websites of their local park services and wildlife and fisheries for advisories. If your pet is acting abnormal and stops eating, develops diarrhea or vomiting or exhibits other behavior that is concerning, it should be evaluated by a veterinarian," Lanaux said.

Lanaux said it would also be advisable to limit water activities until waterway levels have returned to a more normal state and turgid water is clear to a more normal appearance.

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