Leptospirosis is a serious bacterial illness that can infect all mammals. In small animal veterinary medicine, we regularly see leptospiral disease in dogs. Leptospirosis (or “Lepto”) is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted between animals and humans, sometimes with deadly consequences.
Dogs typically contract lepto through contact with the urine of an infected animal, mainly when that urine is in standing water or saturated soil. Small wild animals such as skunks, raccoons and rats are common spreaders of the disease, as well as some domestic livestock. The organism thrives in warm, wet environments that are sheltered from the sun. Consequently, spring and fall bring more infections, as pets may drink, swim in, or walk through contaminated puddles and other sources of still or standing water.
The bacteria infect tissues all over the body, including the liver, kidneys, eyes, and lungs. Clinical signs of lepto include fever, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, appetite loss, and jaundice. Liver and kidney damage are common, and without timely treatment, the disease can cause organ failure, chronic illness, and even death.
Veterinarians treat leptospirosis using antibiotics, IV fluid therapy, medications for pain and nausea, nutritional support, and supplements to support the liver and kidneys.
Humans in contact with infected animals need to be very careful to avoid exposing themselves to the bacteria. This means they wear a gown and gloves to handle the patient, avoid contact with urine, clean their shoes regularly, and handwash thoroughly. In the environment, the bacteria are destroyed by heat, UV light, freezing, and standard disinfectants.
Fortunately, lepto is a mostly preventable disease. A vaccine is available against the most common strains of canine leptospirosis, and is very effective at preventing illness. Healthy dogs of any breed may receive this vaccine, and veterinarians in most areas of Canada and the US recommend it as a part of their core vaccination protocol. Lepto vaccines are most effective when a booster is given one month after the initial vaccination and then provided annually. Although any vaccine may cause adverse effects, the risks associated with vaccination for lepto are low, and side-effects are usually mild. Common adverse reactions are pain at the injection site, lethargy, and a mild fever the day after vaccination. More serious adverse reactions include allergic reactions, vomiting and diarrhea.
Dog owners should check with their veterinarians to make sure their pets are vaccinated for lepto, and discuss the pros and cons of including a lepto vaccine in their annual wellness protocol.
For some more great information about leptospirosis for pet owners, follow the links.