Bow had quite the morning at Huntington Dog Beach.
Huntington Beach is called Surf City, U.S.A. for a reason. There are bigger waves there than at Rosie’s in Long Beach (her usual go-to spot), so she was freaked out at first. But she got over it, and soon enough was playing a game of chicken with 4- and 5-footers in elbow-length water.
She did her swim-in-the-sand routine.
She played chase with other pooches.
And she got into a scuffle with a terrier mix. How do you know it’s escalating from playing to a more serious matter? Here are four fighting behaviors, according to the American Kennel Club:
—The dogs’ bodies get stiff. Hackles are raised;
—Mouths close and lips curl. Rather than playful, exaggerated growling, there’s snarling;
—Ears are pinned flat;
—One dog might be trying to get away from the other one. His or her tail might be tucked.
There are several other indicators, but all we needed to see were those goofy smiles turn into curled lips. And the pinned ears.
It’s a rarity in HB and at most dog beaches, but it does happen, like kids getting into scraps at school. In this case, we broke it up in about five seconds. I think my wife was more shaken than Bow was.
“Builds character,” I said, in a lame attempt to lighten the mood, and do you know that within minutes a tail-wagging Bow was heading back to that dog before I stopped her? She’s not exactly street smart.
Earlier this year, U.S. News & World Report ranked Huntington Dog Beach as one of the 30 best dog beaches in the country. And for good reason. It’s just pristine — from the water to the sand to the cliffs. People are friendly and responsible. Canines do kooky canine things. It’s hard to get the smile off your face.
The beach, open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, is on PCH between Seapoint Avenue and 21st Street. There’s a picnic area with tables, restrooms and doggie waste bags. Parking in either of the two parking lots is $2 an hour.
No, not that Camp David. It’s just an ordinary home in our neighborhood — meaning nice, but not extravagant. David owns it.
When David vacations, he uses house-sitters and also likes lots of traffic going in and out, for obvious reasons. If that traffic happens to involve dogs, all the better. Big dogs = best.
So we take Bow and her daily playmate, Ryu, to David’s backyard, which is large, multi-tiered, with fun features such as a super-soaker of a hose, a tall staircase, a campfire area and all manner of plants and trees to smell.
Bow sniffs around a bit and makes for the hose. Her eyes say, “Come on, already, let’s splash about.” Ryu runs up and down the stairs like an athlete training for a big event. And they get their snacks at the campfire ( minus the fire).
A change of scenery is exciting to them. A mini-adventure. It’s like kids going to a friend’s house to play.
We do the same for our dog-owning neighbors. Our backyard offers jungle-like tunnels, a fence with a pitbull and chihuahua on the other side, and a view of the street facing our house for barking up passersby.
In fact, much of our neighborhood network does it.
It’s great for fur families and a very good security technique.
Located in San Diego’s most northern city, Bagby Beer Co. is located at 601 S. Coast Hwy, Oceanside, CA 92054. Bagby is an impressively large restaurant with indoor, outdoor and rooftop seating. With a seasonal menu, the food is constantly changing and includes options for almost every diet—meat lovers to vegans.
Bagby is a great place to pop in with your dog to grab a quick bite or refreshment before going to The Strand and walking along the Beach and Oceanside’s iconic pier. Bagby allows dogs in their outdoor seating areas, including their rooftop! If the communal dog dish is in use, don’t hesitate to ask your server for additional water. bagbybeer.com
Located in coastal Carlsbad, Crackheads is an ideal place for friends to meet up and make sure their dogs, and yours, get the invite as well. Crackheads is located at 430 Carlsbad Village Dr., Carlsbad, CA 92008. Crackheads is an all-inclusive bar with a small kitchen that happily serves breakfast sandwiches, french fries, chicken sandwiches, salads, and more all day. Crackheads is a completely dog-friendly establishment. With dog bowls out and excited wait staff, your dog will feel right at home here. Another perk to bringing your pup to Crackheads? It’s just a short walk to the famous Carlsbad Seawall. Crackheads is open as close to “all day” as possible. Anytime is a great time to head on over! crackheads.com
3. The Crack Shack – Encinitas
Continuing south, the next stop is The Crack Shack – Encinitas, located at 407 Encinitas Boulevard, Encinitas, CA 92024.
There are multiple “The Crack Shack” locations; however, I can only personally speak on the dog-friendliness of the Encinitas location. Let me tell you—it’s next level. After becoming somewhat of a regular at this location and befriending one of their wonderful bartenders, I learned that The Crack Shack is zoned as a pavilion. What does that mean to us dog lovers? Your four-legged friends are allowed literally anywhere at this establishment.
Is it raining, but you’re craving a delicious chicken sandwich? Don’t worry; you and your best friend are welcome to dine inside The Crack Shack and enjoy your delicious meal in peace. crackshack.com/location/encinitas
4. Viewpoint Brewing
Viewpoint Brewing is a great place to stop before or after a Del Mar Dog Beach (see page 39) day or after hopping off the San Dieguito River Park Trails. Located at 2201 San Dieguito Drive, Suite D, Del Mar, CA 92014, Viewpoint Brewing’s atmosphere is inviting, chill, comforting, and over-the-top dog friendly.
The waitstaff will instantly ask if your pup needs some water and bring over a dish filled to the brim. While relaxing and enjoying some delicious food, ask your server about their handmade dog treats from Boozy Bone, locally sourced and always striving for organic ingredients! viewpointbrewing.com
5. Amplified Ale Works
The final stop on our coastal doggie tour is Amplified Ale Works located at 4150 Mission Blvd #208, San Diego, CA 92109. The large outdoor patio beer garden is family friendly and is dog friendly, or better yet, dog appreciative. The first line on their website in bold print, “We are Dog Friendly!” Anytime I am there, I see no less than five dogs. The patio is large enough for multiple dogs and still is spacious. Not only does Amplified have a house-made beer, but also from-scratch Mediterranean food, craft cocktails, freshly roasted coffee, and, frequently, live music. Amplified’s pride in being “Community Centric” also applies to dogs. There are community dog bowls everywhere. Their Facebook often posts a daily dose of dog, and they’ll even whip up a plain burger patty if you ask! If you’re not on the coast, their location in the East Village is even bigger and has pizzas as well. amplifiedales.com
Good Dog Manners
Patio dining with your dog can be a very enjoyable outing. Here are a few tips to help make it a fun and successful outing:
• Call ahead to confirm the dog-friendly policies.
• Pick a corner table on the patio
• Use a harness and a short, nonretractable leash
• Don’t tie their leash to furniture
• Never feed your dog off your plate
• Feed your dog beforehand and bring treats
• Don’t feed other dogs
• Make sure they know these three commands: “Sit. Down. Leave it.”
• Bring your own water bowl
• Bring a (non squeaking) comfort toy
• Seat your dog on the floor
• Go when the restaurant is less busy
• Avoid sitting by children. Why? Kids find dogs irresitible and often don’t know the rules for being around strange dogs in public.
San Diego Humane Society is the Animal Services Provider for 14 Cities in San Diego County
You find a stray animal. You’re concerned about your neighbor’s barking dog. You need to report a case of suspected cruelty or neglect. Or perhaps you find an injured wild animal on your property. Who do you turn to?
For most of San Diego County, the answer is, San Diego Humane Society (SDHS). The organization is the full animal services provider for 14 local municipalities spanning from Imperial Beach to Oceanside, including Carlsbad, Del Mar, El Cajon, Encinitas, Escondido, La Mesa, Poway, San Diego, San Marcos, Santee, Solana Beach, and Vista. For pet owners living in those cities, this means SDHS is their go-to resource for animal-related needs, questions and concerns—lost and found animals, adoptions, dog licenses, assistance from Humane Law Enforcement, resources like free pet food and access to veterinary care, and more. They’re also the region’s primary resource for wildlife rescue and rehabilitation—and even serve as your point of contact when you find a rattlesnake in your yard.
With campuses in El Cajon, Escondido, Oceanside, Ramona, and San Diego, SDHS cares for more than 40,000 companion and wild animals each year and provides humane law enforcement and officer dispatch around-the-clock. SDHS is so much more than a traditional animal shelter—the organization is committed to partnering with residents of San Diego County to help keep their animals safe.
Through its Community Support Services, SDHS offers resources to support pet families in need, including low-cost spay/neuter surgeries, vaccination and microchip clinics, a Community Pet Pantry where pet owners can pick up free food for their animals, financial assistance for veterinary care, and even eviction and housing support. It also provides emergency boarding services for the pets of community members experiencing domestic violence, homelessness, medical emergencies, or other crises.
Additionally, the organization offers a wide range of resources to help pet owners address behavioral challenges, which is one of the most common reasons that pets enter shelters. Through an online resource library, affordable and free training classes, and a Behavior Helpline, SDHS is committed to helping families keep the pets they love.
SDHS offers resources to support pet families in need, including low-cost spay/neuter surgeries, vaccination and microchip clinics, a Community Pet Pantry where pet owners can pick up free food for their animals, financial assistance for veterinary care, and even eviction and housing support.
As a national leader in the field of animal welfare, SDHS has developed signature programs designed to save more lives in our region and advance the field of animal welfare nationally, including its Veterinary Medicine, Behavior & Training, Kitten, and Foster programs. These programs are essential to San Diego County’s ability to keep its euthanasia rate for healthy and treatable shelter animals at zero, and they include state-of-the-art facilities like the Pilar & Chuck Bahde Center for Shelter Medicine, the nation’s first 24-hour Kitten Nursery (now a program transitioning to more foster home care, thanks to volunteer families in our community) and a one-of-a-kind Behavior Center.
To learn more about SDHS or to make a donation to support their work, visit sdhumane.org. SDHS operates five locations in San Diego, Oceanside (two locations), Escondido, and El Cajon. All are open to the public 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.
I didn’t know most of my Fullerton neighbors— beyond salutations—until Bow entered my life.
Once my labradoodle was medically cleared to mix and mingle, I started walking her the two minutes to Fern Elementary School. Plenty of fields, plenty of shade trees, open to the public evenings and weekends. It was there that I ran into a neighbor with her labradoodle. Bow and Bunny, who was 7 at the time, got along, so when the field was clear, we unleashed them.
Soon, Bow and Bunny started meeting at Fern on Saturday mornings, which led to an idea: I was meeting more and more dogs on walks, so why not invite them and their humans to our Saturday soirees?
Within a week, Winston and Ryu, both puppies, joined us, and we decided to do Sundays, as well. It was still hit-and-miss, but we were off to a good start. Group members agreed that, moving forward, the more the merrier.
The elementary schools in Fullerton— and most throughout Orange County— are gated for the safety of students, which means fields are enclosed. Ideal for off-leashing, socializing, exercise. Most everyone in Southern California lives within a mile or two of a school, so a weekend club is quite doable.
We didn’t want to lose our privileges, so we made sure to steer clear of students and other people—even on weekends—and to leave the school grounds clean (we even pick up poop that doesn’t come from our cast of characters).
We were working with different schedules, so the next step was creating a text thread with fellow dog lovers and setting up specific meeting times (eventually, we settled on 7:30 a.m. on both days). Earlier is better because, most likely, the fields will be unpopulated and the sun won’t bear down for a couple of hours.
The text thread we started has developed into a support system that goes beyond our dog club. We share information on dog care, there’s well-wishing on special occasions, and we’ve picked up the slack for each other during emergencies. We’ve also set up playdates for weekdays. A neighborhood network of pooch lovers is an invaluable tool.
We didn’t formalize field rules, and in that way we’ve been lucky. We all knew to introduce our dogs slowly, on leash, before we freed them. As non-experts, we learned—by observation and by consulting professionals—that there’s a fine line between canines setting boundaries and canines trying to harm one another. It’s important, as our dog club grows and new pups are introduced, to remind ourselves that we’re not pros, and to err on the safe side. That might mean keeping your dog on-leash or removing him or her from the scene.
Regulars are Bow, Bunny, Winston, Walker, Marley, Flynn, Cota, Zeus and Gracie, all different ages, sizes and breeds.
Here are three final suggestions for your dog club.
1 Bring water and a traveling bowl. It seems obvious, but we forget these details. Moreover, when one human runs out of water, others can fill the void. In our club, all water is shared; the dogs drink a ton because they’re running the equivalent of several miles over a 60- to 90-minute period.
2 Watch your knees. Most of the humans in our club have been toppled at high speeds. The slapstick has provided laughs (once we realized the humans weren’t injured), but it really is dangerous. As a result, some crouch, some sit on playground swings and others lean against tree trunks. We all keep our heads on a swivel.
3 Remember that you’re there for the dogs. The human conversations and relationships are a bonus, and if you don’t connect, it’s OK. You have your dogs in common.
Bow Rhoades is PCM’s four-on-the-floor Orange County area correspondent. Bow, a 2-year-old labradoodle, makes her home in Fullerton with her fur parents, Brady and Tonia. Look on petcompanionmag.com for her adventures at parks, businesses, beaches, hiking trails and other spots.
Get Your Cat Cuddles and Coffee at the Craft Cat Café
Everyone has seen those movie moments where someone gets home after a long day, they flop onto the couch, coffee in hand, and a cat jumps in their lap, purring furiously and burrowing in for a session of pets and scratches. Ever wished you could experience that, but you just can’t adopt a cat with your current lifestyle or living arrangements? If so, you’ll want to head straight to San Diego County’s Cat and Craft Cat Café in Vista, where all your cat wishes will come true. You’ll think you’re in a movie (or at least dreaming) as you experience the furry fun of a real-life, at-home-style cat encounter, complete with purring and lap jumping in the Café’s Cat Lounge. Add a mug of exceptional craft-brewed coffee or tea and a fresh tasty treat, and you’re ready to relax and enjoy the positive and compassionate community vibe at Cat and Craft Cat Café.
Cat and Craft’s mission is to “Positively impact cat rescue and adoptions through the creation of a fun, safe and loving environment that promotes authentic connections between people and the rescue cats we foster.” This mission comes to life inside the Café—among all the cuteness and calm, the culture at Cat and Craft will start to envelop you, transporting you to your own state of feline zen.
At the Cat and Craft Cat Café, Compassion is their primary corporate value. All the cats living at the Café are being fostered by the employees while being loved on by the customers— and all are available for adoption. They roam freely in the Café’s 800-square-foot lounge area, where there’s not a cage to be found. Customers can pay a fee, enter the lounge with the foster cats, and give them as much love and attention as you (or they) wish for one full hour. The fee for this magical 60-minute escape helps defray the costs of staffing, maintenance of the space, and care of the cats.
Visitors who are minors 7 to 14 years old must be accompanied in the Cat Lounge by their parent or legal guardian. Visitors 15 to 17 years old must have a waiver signed by their parent or legal guardian to enjoy the Cat Lounge unaccompanied. Children 6 years old and younger, including infants/babies, are permitted in the lounge only during specially designated sessions, called Kiddie Cat Hours (see catandcraftcafe.com for full details and requirements for attending these special sessions). Young or old, and whether you’re there to adopt a cat or just get your kitty fix, your patronage is priceless to these cats and the staff at Cat and Craft.
Another core principle at the Café is Connection. The soulful moments experienced between cat and human in the Cat Lounge often result in an immediate connection that ultimately leads to adoption. And if you’re lucky enough to have one of those moments, you’ll be happy to know that each cat available for adoption has been spayed/neutered, is fully vaccinated, has been treated for worms and fleas, has received a feline leukemia test, is microchipped and registered, and has received a comprehensive veterinary exam. The cats come to the Café from The Rescue House, a local, non-profit, volunteer-operated organization based in Encinitas, with adoption centers in various locations across San Diego County. The Rescue House and Cat and Craft work hand in hand to find loving homes for these unwanted, abandoned, homeless, and sometimes abused cats.
The final tenet of Cat and Craft’s commitment to an ethical culture is Community. Together, the staff and customers celebrate their community every day in the Café’s Cat Lounge, as well as at frequent special events held to raise awareness, funds, and hope for potential new homes for all the Café cats. With an array of delicious craft-brewed coffees and teas, plus fresh local pastries, gourmet toast plates, and more, you might be tempted to linger in the Cat Café and nibble for hours. All coffee products are locally sourced from Manzanita Roasting Company in North San Diego County, a testament to the Café’s deep ties to the local community. The goal is to provide a place for people to gather and connect over their love of both a great craft-brewed cup of coffee and these very deserving felines. Check the Cat and Craft Cat Café website at catandcraftcafe.com for a schedule of events. There’s something for everyone, including Paint Nights, Transformational Breathwork® Classes, and many other fun events for the whole family!
A visit to the Cat and Craft Cat Café Cat Lounge is time well spent for both you and the cats, for several reasons. The company of companion animals has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety in humans; but, for some people, owning a cat just isn’t feasible, no matter how much they’d like to. A trip to the Cat Lounge offers the benefits of cat companionship, at your convenience, one hour at a time. For the Café cats, socialization in the Cat Lounge improves their emotional health and overall well-being, which increases their chances for adoption. Each time they experience gentle affection from humans in a safe environment, these precious cats slowly learn, a little at a time, how to trust again.
Reservations are recommended if you want to hang out with the Café cats in the Cat Lounge, so book your cat lounge visit online at catandcraftcafe.com to secure your time slot. The Cat and Craft Cat Café is located in Vista Palomar Park at 3211 Business Park Drive, Suite 3B, Vista, CA 92081. Visit the Café every Wednesday to Sunday, from 8:00 am to 7:00 pm.
More than 20 felines zipped up walls and hid in any crevice they could find. The person living there had mentioned that one of his cats had been sick for two days, so I was checking in, to see if I could lend a hand. I had no idea he was—for lack of a better phrase—a “cat hoarder.”
You’ve seen the shows on television: A person is living in unthinkable conditions, surrounded by way too much stuff, garbage piling up, and their home looking like it should be condemned. Yet they refuse to leave, clean up, or part with any of their possessions, so a concerned family member calls in a professional to help convince the hoarder that living that way puts their safety, health, even their very lives, at risk.
Unfortunately, when people hoard cats, they impose those same risks on the helpless animals they keep in their houses of horror. The cats in the home I visited did not look healthy. And how could they be when they live surrounded by filth, decay, and rot?
Several cats mustered the courage to sit on a dresser, big-eyed, looking scared but curious. None were meowing or hissing; in fact, they were all strangely quiet and still, both the ones hiding and the ones staring. I was utterly shocked by all I was seeing and smelling. I knew this problem was beyond anything I could help with, so I headed out, mind racing and heart pounding. Before I reached the door, though, I heard kittens mewing. When I tracked down the source, I found three newborn kittens in a cardboard box with a wet shirt over them. They were cold, frail, and clearly without motherly care. I knew I needed a professional, just like on TV.
So what to do? Where to start?
Because I’d never encountered such a thing, it was hard to know where to begin. I opted for the throw-everything-at-the-wall method.
First, I talked to the person living in the home, urging professional care for the cats. Sadly, I found out the kittens I spotted in the cardboard box had died. Next, I talked to some pet-loving neighbors. I contacted OC Humane Society, OC Community Cats, MeoowzResQ, Cats in Need of Human Care, and more. I looked into Animal Control. I did research on the Internet, but then remembered that’s a rabbit hole. Better to lean on people who know what they’re doing.
According to International Cat Care, the consequences for cats involved in overcrowded environments are inter-cat and stress-related problems; diseases associated with overcrowding/ poor nutrition; other health issues such as fleas, ringworm, cheyletiellosis, and fecal contamination; constantly increasing numbers because of indiscriminate breeding; congenital and hereditary diseases associated with inter-breeding; and lack of early socialization, leading to a fear of human contact.
I didn’t know if any of that applied to these cats. But I did know the situation was dire. After all my consulting with the pros, the matter is now in the hands of Orange County Animal Control. An officer provided me an activity number so I can track the investigation.
In cases where it’s determined that cats—or other pets—are not getting proper care, Animal Control tries to collaborate with the caretaker on a remedy. In more difficult circumstances, Animal Control, with the help of local police, confiscates the pets, gets them medical care, including spaying and neutering, and puts the “viable” pets up for adoption. In worst-case scenarios, pets are euthanized.
Experts I talked to, such as Darren Kimble, a manager at National Cat Protection Society, say rehoming pets who’ve lived in cramped, isolated places is a long shot because, among other issues, they haven’t been socialized.
“It’s difficult for most shelters to socialize cats because they don’t have a cat behaviorist on hand,” Kimble said. “To socialize even a kitten, it takes weeks of daily work.”
In basic terms, “unsocialized” means humans are unable to interact with the cats. If the cats are older than 6, socializing becomes nearly impossible.
“Any interaction with unsocialized cats is very much on their terms,” Kimble added.
In Orange County, shelters and rescue operations are overwhelmed with healthy, socialized cats who need homes. Those cats will likely be at the top of the list for potential adopters. The shelters are full, in part because it’s kitten season. Unaltered female cats are in heat. They give birth roughly 60 days after pregnancy, resulting in a slew of unwanted young ones. Spaying and neutering your cats goes a long way toward solving this problem. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, cats are usually safe to spay or neuter at 8 weeks old. Most county animal care centers post a list of clinics for spaying and neutering on their websites.
Cats deserve a spacious, healthy, and clean environment to live in. They deserve proper nutrition, attention, and healthcare. And they deserve the chance to be socialized, so they can live peaceably and happily with humans.
This is a sad story, and we all know it’s not an isolated incident. But here’s the good news: We’ve learned that Animal Control completed its investigation, confiscated the cats, provided medical care, cleaned them and is trying to get them adopted. Almost half have been spayed or neutered. Others will be fixed upon adoption, Animal Control officers say. My wife and I are working on adopting one or two. Neighbors have shown interest in doing the same. If you want to help, visit ocpetinfo.com, click on Lost Pets, then Found Pets, then Cats. Look for the cats who were confiscated from Fullerton on July 8 of this year.
Time is of the essence. If we can help rehome some of them, we’ll have done our part to save precious lives.
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, cats are usually safe to spay or neuter at 8 weeks old. Most county animal care centers post a list of clinics for spaying and neutering on their websites.
Summers in the desert, or in any extremely hot location, can be challenging to exercise your dog properly. We need to get up to walk early and stay up to walk late at night. I suggest doing it in the morning, since it’s the coolest part of the day and sets a good tone for the day.
In the dog world, there are hundreds of breeds—some breeds were built for swimming, like Labs, goldens, and Newfies. The double coat and webbed feet help them to be great swimmers. Then you have breeds like my bulldog, who have difficulty swimming due to their short legs, buoyant bodies, and short muzzle. Water safety is just as important for our dogs as it is for our kids.
Here are five steps that will keep your dog safe in the water.
1 If your pool is in a yard shared with kids and dogs, it should be fenced, or an alarm system should alert you when something splashes in the pool.
2 Teach your dog to stay out of the pool when not invited. You’re teaching the dog boundaries, like boundaries with furniture and jumping. If you’re having difficulties teaching your dog, then contact a Certified Professional Trainer.
3 Teaching your dog how to get out of the pool if it should happen to fall in is very important. I have seen even skilled swimmers fall in and panic and can’t find their way out. All pools have steps, some bigger than others. This is a good spot to start using positive reward systems like treats, toys, and good old-fashioned love and affection to motivate the dog to come to the step for a reward. Try to keep the dog from jumping out of the pool immediately. Wait for the dog to show a calm demeanor, let it out of the pool, and then bring the dog back in again and repeat these steps until the dog is happy to go in and out easily. Using a leash will help you with this behavior.
4 If you have a breed like my bulldog, buy your dog a life vest for pool time. And if you go boating with your dogs, be sure each dog wears a life vest, even if they’re good swimmers. This tool can be life-saving in case of an accident.
5 Put in a scamp ramp. This is a ramp that floats in the pool and can help your dog get out of the pool if it falls in accidentally. The ramp is a bright white color that would draw the dog’s eyes to it, even if the dog is in a panicked state.
Always ensure that someone is outside with your dogs at all times, just as you would with children. And have a wonderful, safe summer!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Cats need protection, too. Life jackets like this Baltic Maja Cat Buoyancy Aid are made specifically for cats.
Lepto is the most common zoonotic (transmitted between animals and people) disease in the world, causing illness in 7 to 10 million people, with nearly 60,000 deaths every year.
Living in the Desert or other arid areas, it’s easy to overlook a disease that only thrives in the presence of water. But in many parts of the world, where water is a more prominent feature of the landscape, Leptospirosis (Lepto) carries considerable risk, not only to dogs, but also to people. Dog owners in Southern California received a harsh reminder of this fact in 2021, when, over a few months, Los Angeles County experienced over 200 reported cases of Lepto, and it’s likely more cases went unreported.
In hindsight, it seems surprising that we could be caught so off guard. Lepto is not a new disease, and, viewed broadly, is not particularly rare. Epidemiologists estimate, in fact, that Lepto is the most common zoonotic (transmitted between animals and people) disease in the world, causing illness in 7 to 10 million people, with nearly 60,000 deaths every year.
In studying the Los Angeles outbreak, we learned that most cases were caused by the strain of Lepto most closely associated with dogs, indicating that most transmission was occurring from dog to dog. In the past, cases more often involved transmission from other species, typically livestock or wildlife to dogs, with the strain responsible often reflecting the source. This awareness is particularly frustrating when we acknowledge that a vaccination protecting against the dog strain has existed for decades.
Clearly, our complacence about Lepto has caught up with us, and it’s time to refresh our understanding of it. With that in mind, here are some key facts.
Transmission occurs through water or wet surfaces.
Lepto is caused by bacteria of the genus Leptospira. Transmissions for both animals and people usually occur by consumption of contaminated water, or through contact with open wounds or mucous membranes. Studies have suggested that infection can begin from only a few organisms in a water droplet splashed into an eye. The organism enters water in the environment through passage of urine from an infected animal and can remain viable there for months, as long as the water does not dry or freeze. It does not survive in seawater or chlorinated water, just in freshwater or on surfaces that remain wet or moist.
In dogs, as in other species, symptoms can vary.
Although cats can become infected with Lepto, they tend to recover without serious problems. Dogs, on the other hand, can get really sick. The organism has its greatest impact on the kidneys and liver, but the symptoms are often nonspecific—depression, loss of appetite, pain, weakness, vomiting, swollen eyes, drinking/urinating excessively— and their severity may range from mild to life-threatening. No one knows why some dogs react worse than others.
There are multiple strains of Leptospira.
Classifying Lepto species and strains (serovars) can get very confusing. For practical purposes, each serovar is linked to a particular species of animal that serves as its primary host. In theory, the primary host is the most likely to serve as a long-term carrier (and shedder) of its own serovar, but in reality many species of animal are capable of catching and transmitting more than one serovar.
There are seven serovars known to cause disease in dogs (see Table on following page). The last two cases I treated in the Desert were caused by L. icterohaemorraghiae , in a dog from Los Angeles, and L. autumnalis, in a local dog who had traveled only to Idyllwild. Both patients recovered well with treatment. As it did with these dogs, knowing the serovar gives us an idea about how a patient acquired their infection, but it doesn’t necessarily predict the severity of the disease or its response to therapy.
There are ways to protect against Lepto.
Until about 25 years ago, most veterinarians believed only dogs that lived around livestock, hunting dogs, or other dogs that spent a lot of time in ponds and streams were likely to catch leptospirosis. More recent evidence, like the 2021 outbreak, suggests that urban dogs may be equally vulnerable. We know that wild animals provide an ongoing reservoir for Lepto, and many species, particularly rodents and raccoons, can encroach on human living spaces, even in cities. Dog owners should, therefore, refrain from attracting wildlife into their yards and avoid leaving water bowls outside overnight, especially where rodent contamination may occur.
We now also know that other dogs can be a direct source of infection in surroundings where close contact occurs, particularly in the presence of water. For these risks, vaccination can be a key part of prevention. Lepto vaccines are highly effective and protect against the four most common serovars that affect dogs (see Table). Because bacterial vaccines (technically, called bacterins) never provide the duration of immunity we expect from viral vaccines, they have to be repeated every year. In the past, there has been reluctance among some veterinarians to give Lepto vaccines, since earlier vaccines were less refined than the ones we have currently, and the vaccines developed a reputation for causing a disproportionate number of reactions. Today, however, Lepto vaccines have very low reaction rates that are comparable to other vaccines, so for most dogs the risk of catching the disease far outweighs the chance of having a reaction to vaccination.
There are tests available to diagnose Lepto.
Veterinarians usually diagnose Lepto through blood tests, using either a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) Assay, or by antibody testing with a Microscopic Agglutination Test (MAT). Which test they perform might depend on the situation at hand. The PCR provides a rapid diagnosis, but only if the patient has not received antibiotics, which can make it falsely negative, and it cannot distinguish between the various Lepto serovars. The MAT provides titer (blood test) readings that can help differentiate the serovars, but it is unreliable in the earliest stages of infection. It becomes more useful if the test is repeated 2 to 3 weeks later to measure changes in titers that develop after an immune response occurs.
Once diagnosed, affected dogs usually respond to treatment.
For reasons we can’t fully explain, a few dogs that contract Lepto will develop life-threatening symptoms, and some don’t survive. For most patients, however, appropriate antibiotics, anti-emetics, and fluid support effectively treat the disease. Hospitalization is recommended, although some patients can recover at home. Regardless, either a veterinary or home caretaker must remain aware of Lepto’s zoonotic potential, particularly before treatment begins. Urine from Lepto patients is highly infectious, so eliminations and contaminated surfaces must be managed carefully. Fortunately, the zoonotic risk seems to drop once antibiotics begin to have their effect.
As we can see from these facts, Lepto, as a disease in dogs, can be fairly well managed if we remain vigilant about it. Our greatest challenge may come not from an inability to prevent and treat it, but from our failure to recognize it as a threat. Many of the Los Angeles cases were associated with day-care and boarding facilities without any involvement from wildlife or livestock, and with little or no exposure to the outside environment. Perhaps, as our society has evolved, risk factors have changed, and it may be time to update our thinking about Lepto.
Getting to enjoy someone else’s cat without the responsibility of ownership, doing a friend a favor while they’re out of town … cat sitting is a win-win, right? It sounds simple, but I’m here to tell you, lots can go wrong when you’re watching other people’s cats. It’s a huge responsibility to keep a cat safe, fed, hydrated, and happy. Add to that administering medicine, cleaning up after cats with “delicate stomachs,” and keeping track of hiders, and it can be just short of a nightmare.
I watch a cat with some major digestive issues. He can’t keep much down, and what stays down comes out explosively, starting on the wall at the back of the cat box and finishing in a sickly spray across the floor next to the cat box. Three times a day, I have to arm myself with a strong fan, gloves, a mask, swim goggles, disinfectant, and some cat-friendly wipes for cleaning his nether regions. It is truly hazardous waste, and I should probably invest in a yellow suit.
And, naturally, his veterinarian prescribes medication to help alleviate this problem. His instructions: “Draw medicine into syringe, slip into side of cat’s cheek, then gently plunge medicine down throat. All while holding cat firmly but with featherlike touch.” Honestly, the wrestling match that has to happen before the single drop of medicine makes it inside this cat doesn’t seem worth the emotional trauma it causes both of us. And guess what the cat does next time he hears me slip the key in the front door?
I’ll tell you what he does—he hides. A lot of shy cats hide from strangers, and it can strike terror in the heart of a cat sitter to walk into a silent house where nothing is stirring. Lucky for me, the eyewatering odor from the cat box tells me he’s here somewhere, as do the bits of food scattered about the kitchen. But where?
Getting In Is the Easy Part
I once spent a solid hour searching this cat’s house, panicked, feeling like a criminal, and peering into places I was never meant to go. I was convinced he’d somehow gotten out and I would now be responsible for his certain death.
Finally, I noticed a dresser drawer left ajar, so I pulled on it to remove it from the dresser. It didn’t come out. Some sort of mechanism locked the drawer in place—it opened but couldn’t be removed. My heart sank when I heard the first small meow. The cat had gone into the open drawer, climbed over the edge and dropped down into the drawer below. So I couldn’t close the open drawer without decapitating him, but I couldn’t pull out the drawer he was in unless he ducked his head to clear the drawer above. After another half hour of grappling with the cat and drawer, I started to remove the back panel of the dresser with a screwdriver I found in the garage while searching for the cat.
Thankfully, I was only two screws in when one paw, one ear, and half a head appeared at the bottom of the dresser. I lifted up the heavy dresser, hoping he could maneuver the rest of the way out. After much scrabbling and every last ounce my strength, I saw him streak out of the bedroom, off to some dark place where he hid for the remainder of his owner’s vacation.
Eyes Wide Open
Cat sitting might sound like the perfect way to get your cat fix without owning one, but don’t go into it without understanding the unimaginable predicaments you can get into when you’re caring for a cat that isn’t yours. Expect the unexpected, and be sure you’re fully committed and available to do whatever it takes to care for—and hopefully enjoy—the precious little furball you’re being entrusted with. And don’t say I didn’t warn you!