Reproductive failure in cattle: What to know about Leptospirosis

What causes leptospirosis?

December 15, 2022

8 Min Read
Reproductive failure in cattle: What to know about Leptospirosis

“Reproductive failure” is an all-encompassing term if a cow loses a calf during pregnancy or if she fails to get pregnant. Causes of reproductive failure are often divided into infectious and non-infectious categories. Examples of “non-infectious” include poor cow nutrition (lack of energy and micronutrients such as selenium/Vitamin E); bull infertility, disease, and injury; breeding season management (shortened breeding season, insufficient bull-to-cow ratios); genetic and some congenital abnormalities that result in fetal death; and toxic agents such as nitrates, phytoestrogens, and drugs including steroids and prostaglandins. “Infectious” causes are bacteria, viruses, protozoal and fungal agents that directly or indirectly damage the placenta and/or the fetus. Examples include the BVD virus, IBR virus, the protozoan Neospora caninum and many species of the bacterium Leptospira, among many others. This series of articles will explore the most common infectious causes of abortion and reproductive failure in cattle and available options for control and prevention.

What is Leptospirosis or “Lepto”? Leptospirosis is a complicated bacterial disease commonly associated with abortions, stillbirths, premature births, and infertility in cattle. However, this bacterium also causes sickness and death in cattle, dogs, sheep, and horses worldwide and is an important zoonotic disease affecting an estimated 1 million humans annually. Farmers, veterinarians, and those working in meat processing facilities are at highest risk to contract the disease.

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What causes leptospirosis? The disease is caused by a unique, highly coiled, Gram-negative bacterium known as a “spirochete” belonging to the genus Leptospira. These “leptospires” are highly motile due to their spiral shape and, once inside a host animal, they enter the bloodstream and replicate in many different organs including the liver, kidney, spleen, reproductive tract, eyes and central nervous system. The immune system will produce antibodies that usually clear the organism from the blood and tissues rather quickly except from the kidney. Leptospires take up residence primarily in the kidney and are excreted in the urine for months to even years after infection, depending on the species of Leptospira and the animal infected. Less frequently, leptospires persist in the male and female genital tract and mammary gland of females and may be excreted in semen, uterine discharges, and milk.

How do cattle become infected with leptospires? Transmission of the organism is most often through direct contact with infected urine, placental fluids, semen, or milk. However, transmission may also occur by coming in contact with areas contaminated with infected urine, such as stagnant ponds or swampy areas with standing water. The leptospires survive in the environment for long periods of time (approximately 6 months in the right conditions) in stagnant water as well as in warm and moist soils but die quickly when dry or in cold temperatures. Entry into the animal may be through penetration of intact mucous membranes such as through the mouth and the conjunctiva of the eye, or through damaged or water-softened skin. The organism may also be transferred during breeding and also during pregnancy from dam to fetus.

Which animals carry (“host”) this organism and are responsible for spread of disease? This is where the complicated life cycle of this organism must be explained to understand the wide range of disease symptoms that may be observed in cattle. To begin, it is important to distinguish two different types of “hosts”: 1) maintenance or reservoir hosts and 2) incidental or accidental hosts. A “maintenance host” is an animal that can carry and spread the leptospirosis organism but not experience any obvious sickness from it. These are also known as “reservoir hosts” because this animal’s immune system allows the leptospires to survive and duplicate themselves then be excreted in urine and spread to other animals. Maintenance hosts for leptospires are often wildlife species including skunks, rats, raccoons, and opossums but can be domestic animals (dogs) or livestock (pigs, cattle), depending on which type of leptospire (known as a “serovar”) is involved (Table 1). For example, cattle serve as the maintenance host for the Leptospira serovar called “Hardjo type hardjo-bovis”, often abbreviated as “Hardjo”. Transmission from one infected cow to another healthy cow with serovar Hardjo is efficient, and the infection rate can be very high in an unvaccinated herd. When a cow is initially infected with serovar Hardjo, she may exhibit a few mild signs such as low fever but there will be very little antibody production by the immune system and the leptospires will stay primarily in the kidney and be persistently shed in her urine for a prolonged period of time (months to years). In addition, the organism can also localize in male and female reproductive tracts and be shed in semen and uterine discharges.

An “incidental host” or “accidental host” is an animal that gets infected with a Leptospira serovar not normally found in that animal (infected “by accident”) which results in clinical disease that may be severe. Incidental hosts are not reservoirs of infection and transmission of the organism is uncommon within a herd. Infection of an incidental host usually occurs in areas contaminated with urine from maintenance hosts. For example, cattle are incidental hosts for the Leptospira serovar “Pomona” which is carried by feral swine, opossums, skunks, and raccoons (the maintenance hosts) and transmitted to cattle from water or feed contaminated with their urine. Once infected, cattle (especially calves) with Pomona often show significant signs of disease, the immune system rapidly produces antibodies and there is a short carrier state in the kidney when cattle shed the organism in urine.

What are the symptoms of leptospirosis? Clinical signs or symptoms of disease in cattle depend on which Leptospira serovar is involved and if cattle serve as a maintenance host or incidental host for this specific type. There are over 250 serovars of Leptospira but the two most important serovars affecting cattle in North America are Hardjo and Pomona, with Grippotyphosa, Canicola and Icterohaemorrhagiae much less frequently diagnosed. Most bovine leptospirosis is caused by the serovar Hardjo, which causes infertility and reproductive failure. Cows with Hardjo are twice as likely to fail to conceive and experience a significantly longer time interval from calving to conception.

Infection in pregnant cows with non-Hardjo strains, mostly Pomona and Grippotyphosa, results in abortion (usually late term), stillbirth, or birth of premature and weak infected calves. Retention of fetal membranes may follow abortion. Lactating dairy cows may exhibit “milk drop syndrome”, characterized as a drop in milk production for 2-10 days where the milk has the consistency of colostrum, thick clots, yellowish color, and high somatic cell count, but the udder remains soft. In calves, a severe, rapidly progressing disease may occur when infected with incidental serovars, especially Pomona. Symptoms of high fever, extreme weakness, red urine, rapid breathing due to anemia and death are all possible. Cows may experience a loss of milk production with very prolonged recovery.

How is leptospirosis diagnosed and treated? Diagnosis of this disease is not necessarily a simple task. Traditionally, two blood samples (in red top blood tubes) drawn at least 1 week apart after an abortion are submitted to measure antibodies against the most common serovars. Incidental infections (for example, Pomona) will show a rapid rise in antibody numbers (called “titers”) over time that are diagnostic. However, since cattle are the maintenance host of serovar Hardjo, the antibody numbers may remain low if reproductive failure is due to Hardjo. Vaccination also confuses the interpretation of results because blood tests do not differentiate antibodies due to infection or antibodies due to vaccine. Therefore, multiple types of tests may be required to rule this disease in or out. Currently, urine is the preferred sample as it can be tested for leptospires through a variety of assays, especially PCR, to identify the organism. Animals diagnosed with leptospirosis can be treated with injectable long-acting oxytetracycline to remove the organism from the kidney. Research is ongoing if additional treatment is needed to clear infections within the genital tract. Consult your veterinarian for detailed advice regarding diagnosis and treatment options.

What methods are used to control and prevent leptospirosis in cattle? New infections are best prevented through early vaccination with products containing the most common serovars affecting cattle. The leptospirosis fraction of most reproductive vaccines is often denoted as “L 5” in the vaccine name, representing Hardjo, Pomona, Grippotyphosa, Canicola and Icterohaemorrhagiae. In addition, several vaccine manufacturers have added extra protection against serovar Hardjo type hardjo-bovis and this is denoted with “HB” in the vaccine name. Spirovac® (Zoetis) is a vaccine for Leptospirosis only, specifically for the prevention of infection by Leptospira borgpetersenii serovar Hardjo type hardjo-bovis, including reproductive and renal tract colonization, and urinary shedding for up to 12 months. It is worth mentioning that cattle already infected with leptospirosis must be treated with antibiotics first to remove the organism before vaccination is effective.

Control is accomplished by prevention of exposure, annual vaccination and treatment if needed. Reduction of cattle exposure to infected urine, especially fencing off stagnant ponds and swampy areas, and preventing urine contamination of feedstuffs will significantly reduce transmission of the organism. Personal protective equipment should be used when working with cattle suspected to be infected to prevent human disease.

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