LEPTOSPIROSIS (Or: The Wet Pet)
You may recall your veterinarian discussing the “lepto” vaccine for your dog, or perhaps all of the recommended vaccines seem like a jumble. What, you may think, is lepto, and is it really important to vaccinate my dog against it? At ACMP, we are passionate not just about protecting pets, but also educating owners to be the best pet parents they can be. In order to be the best advocate and caretaker for your pet, it’s important that you understand the risks your pet may face, and the proactive measures we recommend for protection. Let’s start with the disease Leptospirosis.
What is Lepto?
Leptospirosis (sometimes referred to as “lepto” for short) is a disease caused by bacteria called leptospires. These bacteria are carried by certain mammals, and can cause disease in people and animals. In small animal veterinary medicine, it is a particular concern for dogs.
Leptospires are transmitted through the blood or urine of an infected animal. Often, the urine of an infected animal will contaminate water (ground water or standing water), which can in turn infect animals exposed to that water. Worldwide, Leptospirosis is a significant zoonotic disease (a disease that can pass from animals to people).
So, what type of animals are at risk of contracting lepto? Those who may have direct contact with contaminated water, direct or indirect exposure to wildlife, or exposure to an infected pet. This may be more animals than you think! It’s not just rural animals that contract this disease. Even animals in very urban settings are at risk, as the disease is often transmitted by rodents, which then contaminate water. Animals in both rural and suburban (and sometimes even urban) settings can have exposure to wildlife or their urine. If fact, while lepto used to be of greatest concern for dogs with a predominantly outdoor lifestyle (sporting, herding, or working dogs), more cases are now diagnosed in small and toy breed dogs. We are seeing more and more urban dogs contracting the disease. Any age or breed of dog may be susceptible. Unvaccinated dogs are at significantly higher risk than their vaccinated counterparts.
The animals that most commonly spread or develop lepto include wildlife (raccoons, oppossums, and rodents), farm animals and livestock (swine, cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and buffalo), and dogs. A mild form of the disease has been noted in cats in a laboratory setting, but clinical disease in cats is rare. No lepto vaccine is given to cats at this time.
The disease has been reported in all 50 states, but is particularly prevalent in the Midwest and Northeast, and on the West Coast. New cases are often diagnosed in the fall, as there is heavy wildlife movement and marking at that time. There is also an increase in standing water after heavy rains.
In this post, we will discuss leptospirosis in dogs. An infected dog may show a variety of signs, some of which could be vague or non-specific. He may be lethargic and reluctant to eat. Liver and kidney disease are common, and are the hallmarks of leptospirosis. Some cases are more severe than others.
A dog with severe disease may exhibit vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, increased drinking and urination, and eventually decreased or absent urination. Kidney failure may be present, as well as liver damage (which can cause a yellow, jaundiced appearance to skin and eyes). Even with treatment, this disease can be fatal.
Baseline bloodwork (such as an organ screen and blood cell count) may raise red flags that make your veterinarian suspect infection with leptospirosis. More targeted testing of blood and urine will likely follow to help diagnose the disease.
A dog diagnosed with leptospirosis will usually require a hospital stay, at least at the beginning of treatment. The length of hospitalization will depend on several factors, including the degree of kidney and liver damage, and how well the pet is responding to treatment. The treatment will consist of IV fluid therapy and antibiotics, and other therapies as needed based on the pet’s status and organ disease.
An infected pet is still contagious to other animals and people for up to 3 days after starting antibiotics, so it is very important that appropriate precautions are taken, particularly with the pet’s urine. An affected pet also requires very careful monitoring of fluid intake and output, as well as changes in bloodwork. This care is best provided in a hospital setting.
As lepto is transmissible to people, it is important to be aware of how to stay safe. A person can become infected by contact with contaminated water or soil, or by direct contact with urine or blood of an infected animal. The most common route of human exposure is through water or soil contaminated by wildlife, which can pose a risk for weeks to months after contamination. So, do not drink water that may be affected. As rodents are common carriers, use caution when interacting with wild rodents or their habitats. It is possible for infected pets to transmit the disease to people, as well. An important risk to note is that this disease may cause spontaneous abortion in animals and people, so a pregnant woman who has been exposed may require prophylactic treatment. If you think you may have been exposed to leptospirosis, it is important to contact your physician.
Prevention for pets
The best thing you can do to help protect your dog from contracting leptospirosis is to vaccinate. Your veterinarian will be able to discuss the risks and benefits of vaccinating your particular pet. In certain cases, vaccination for lepto may not be advised. However, for the vast majority of dogs, it is an important measure to protect the health of your pet. As there are many serovars (strains) of this bacteria, the vaccine is not a total guarantee of protection. However, the vaccine provides immunity from the four most common strains, and is highly effective. This vaccine needs to be given annually to provide your dog with full protection.
In addition, as rodents carry and spread leptospires, these and other wildlife invaders should be kept under control as much as possible to limit exposure to animals and humans. If your pet has been diagnosed with lepto (or you suspect he may be infected), avoid handling the blood, urine, or body tissues of that pet before he has received appropriate treatment.
As you can tell, leptospirosis is a serious disease with grave risks. Taking steps to protect your furry family member with appropriate vaccination is just one of the many ways you can show your love and care.
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Moore, G.E. (2011, July). Leptospirosis in Dogs. Clinician’s Brief. Retrieved from
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Weese, J.S. (2014, July). Leptospirosis in a Dog. Clinician’s Brief. Retrieved from https://www.cliniciansbrief.com/article/leptospirosis-dog on June 8 2018..
Weese, J.S. (2017, October). Leptospirosis Hotspots. Clinician’s Brief. Retrieved from https://www.cliniciansbrief.com/article/leptospirosis-hotspots. on June 8 2018.