Leptospirosis – What is it and how can it be prevented?

Leptospirosis is a disease caused by contact and infection of the Leptospira bacteria.  These leptospires will spread throughout the entire body, reproducing in the liver, kidneys, central nervous system, eyes, and reproductive system.  Although dogs are most commonly affected, it is possible (although rare) that cats can be infected also.  “Lepto” is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it can be spread from animals to humans as well.  Humans may be infected by coming into contact with the bacteria from a pet; but more commonly, human cases result from recreational activities involving water.   

Although lepto can occur anywhere, it is most common in areas with warm climates and high annual rainfall.  In North America, common risk factors for dogs include exposure to or drinking from rivers, lakes or streams; or roaming areas with wildlife or farm animals.  Lepto has been confirmed in all of the Lower Mainland and surrounding areas.

Infection occurs when the mucous membranes (or skin with an open wound, cut, or scrape) come into contact with infected urine or urine-contaminated soil, water, food or bedding; through a bite from an infected animal; or even possibly by eating infected tissues of carcasses.  It can also be passed through the placenta from mother dog to her puppies. 

Signs of leptospirosis may include fever, shivering, muscle soreness, reluctance to move, increased water intake, changes in the frequency of urination, dehydration, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, lethargy, jaundice, and painful inflammation within the eyes.  Lepto can also cause bleeding disorders which can lead to blood-tinged vomit, urine, stool or saliva.  Nosebleeds and pinpoint red spots (petechiae) on the gums or other mucous membranes may also be seen.  The disease can rapidly cause kidney failure with or without liver failure.   

Due to the fact that many of these symptoms also result from other diseases as well, your veterinarian will recommend a number of tests for diagnosis.  These may include several different blood tests and urine tests, with the possibility of radiographs and ultrasounds. 

Lepto is generally treated with antibiotics and supportive care, such as fluid therapy, anti-vomiting drugs and/or a gastric tube to provide nourishment if unable to eat.  Blood transfusions may be necessary if there is severe hemorrhaging.  When treated early and aggressively, prognosis is generally positive, although there is still a risk of permanent kidney or liver damage. 

The best way to prevent your dog from leptospirosis is vaccination.  This vaccine is available in most areas and commonly in a “combination vaccine” that prevents against several different viruses.  This vaccine can be given starting at 8 weeks old, but is usually given at the 2nd and 3rd puppy boosters at 12 and 16 weeks.  The combination vaccination should then be given to your dog annually for the rest of their lives unless your veterinarian suggests differently. 

Note:  If you, yourself, are concerned you have been infected with leptospirosis, contact your medical physician immediately!