What is Leptospirosis?

Many clients ask what is leptospirosis? It is a bacterial disease that is zoonotic. This means it can be transmitted from animals to people. The Leptospira bacteria is found world wide in soil and water. Though it can occur anywhere, those areas with a warmer climate and higher annual rainfall are more susceptible. Leptospirosis has been identified as one of the emerging infectious diseases due to changes in climate, animal husbandry and human behavior.

How does infection occur?

Dogs are more susceptible to Leptospirosis than cats. Most dogs become infected through direct contact with contaminated urine from an animal carrying the disease. Dogs can become infected from exposure to or drinking from rivers, lakes, and streams. Infected wildlife, farm animals, rodents and other infected dogs are potential sources.

Infection can occur when a dog’s mucous membrane or an open wound on their skin comes into contact with the bacteria. Urine contaminated soil, water, food or bedding are also potential sources. A bite from an infected animal or consuming infected tissues or carcasses can also spread this disease. In rare cases, the disease can be passed through the placenta of a mother dog to her puppies.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Some infected dogs show no signs of illness while others have a mild illness and recover without treatment. However, other dogs develop serious illness resulting in organ failure and death. While some dogs may not show signs of any illness, they can still be carriers.

The most common symptoms are lethargy, depression, loss of appetite, vomiting, fever, and increased thirst and urination. Some dogs will show signs of jaundice with the lining of their mouth and the whites of their eyes turning yellow. Bleeding disorders can occur causing blood-tinged vomit, urine, stool or saliva. They may develop nosebleeds. In the most severe cases, symptoms develop rapidly and can prove fatal.

Many of these symptoms can be associated with other diseases. Therefore, your veterinarian will need a thorough history of your dog’s health as well as potential exposures. Blood and urine tests may be appropriate. If routine testing indicates leptospirosis, additional definitive testing may be necessary to confirm diagnosis.

Can it be treated?

Early treatment with antibiotics is vitally important. In severe cases, hospitalization and intravenous fluids may be necessary. If found early and treated aggressively, the chance of recovery is good. However, kidney or liver damage remains a risk.

It will be important to follow your veterinarian’s instructions when administering the antibiotics. Precautions will need to be taken to protect yourself and your family. These include avoiding contact with your dog’s urine; using a disinfectant to thoroughly clean areas in your home where your dog urinated;  wearing gloves to avoid contact with contaminated urine; and not allowing your dog to urinate near standing water or other places where people or other dogs risk exposure.

Is there a vaccine to prevent this disease?

There are vaccines available which effectively prevent and protect against leptospirosis. Once administered, these vaccines are effective for at least one year. Vaccinating dogs at risk of developing this serious disease is recommended. Reducing your dog’s exposure to potential sources of leptospirosis is important. This will lessen their risk of infection.

If you have any questions about this disease, talk to your veterinarian. Education and understanding are key factors in keeping your dog healthy, happy and disease free.


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