A researcher from Fairbanks is teaming up with a local veterinarian to study Kodiak’s increase in cases of leptospirosis among animals on the island. Three local cases of the bacterial disease have been reported since the summer of 2019.  

“Something is going on in Kodiak with leptospira,” said Nina Hansen, a veterinarian and researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

Leptospirosis, a waterborne bacteria, tends to affect dogs but it can also infect people. The disease can enter an animal’s or human’s system when they drink water that contains the bacteria, or it can be contracted through cracks or cuts in the skin. The virus is shed through urine. 

The disease is common in the Lower 48 and has started appearing in Alaska. Last year, Kodiak Island saw its first-ever reported death in a dog from the bacteria. 

The infected dog was staying at a fish camp on the south side of Kodiak Island when she came into contact with the bacteria. Four days after the dog was infected, she was brought to the Kodiak Veterinary Clinic. 

That same year, a young bear was found dead on the island. Lab results showed that the bear had leptospirosis DNA in its liver and kidneys. Scientists observed changes in the bear’s cells associated with the disease, and attributed the bear’s death to the bacteria. 

More recently, another case of leptospirosis over the summer likely caused the death of another dog that contracted the bacteria while at a fish camp in Uganik. The dog was showing symptoms of kidney failure, including inability to eat, vomiting and diarrhea. 

With these three cases, local veterinarian Emily Iacobucci will work with Hansen to collect urine and blood samples in dogs that have not yet been vaccinated for the disease. The aim is to find out how prevalent leptospirosis is on the island, and how long it has been here. 

“Right now, we are recommending vaccination without any information of how prevalent it is,” Iacobucci said. At the Kodiak Veterinary Clinic, they now recommend the vaccine to every dog, and they have added it to their core vaccines for puppies. 

 Hansen said that in the Lower 48, the disease is quite prevalent and many dogs can be exposed to it and have antibodies, or proteins that appear in the body after it has suffered an infection. Some dogs show no symptoms, while others can have mild symptoms or die. 

Data collected in Kodiak will contribute to Hansen’s research into leptospirosis in Alaska, where there have been far fewer reported cases than in the Lower 48. 

“There’s not a lot of dogs in the state that are vaccinated for it. I want to justify it when I tell people you should vaccinate your dogs for leptospirosis,” Hansen said. 

With little data on leptospirosis on dogs in Alaska, she was using her research on caribou and reindeer to inform her knowledge. 

“There is this assumption that we don’t have (leptospirosis) here, and I don’t think we have a lot of it. But I have found it in caribou and reindeer in the state,” she said. 

With samples taken from Kodiak dogs, Hansen will look for antibodies in their blood and urine to see if they have had the virus. She hopes to collect 100 to 135 samples. 

“It would be really easy to get. They are minimally invasive,” Hansen said about the samples.

In humans, the disease can present as kidney disease, or people may have jaundice. It can also cause issues with pregnancy. However, the disease is easily treatable. 

Leptospirosis is responsible for about 1 million severe cases and 60,000 deaths per year among humans worldwide. 

These cases are usually in areas with warmer climates. As the climate in Alaska warms and Arctic ice continues to melt, Hansen said she is concerned that leptospirosis cases could rise in the north.

 “There are some species that can survive in salt water, but they are typically found in freshwater,” Hansen said. 

Because rats are the most common source of human infection in the world, Hansen also wants to collect rats from the island. Hansen and Iacobucci are looking for Kodiak dogs that have not yet been vaccinated to have their samples taken, as well as rats that people may trap on the island. Owners who participate will be gifted a free annual test exam at the vet clinic. 

Interested participants can contact Iacobucci at the vet clinic. 

With the free exam, participants “will get some benefit in addition to contributing the science,” Hansen said. 

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