April 5, 2021

Medical Issues Wellness & Prevention

What is Leptospirosis and Is My Pet at Risk?

by Aili V. Heintz, DVM

Springtime brings many beautiful changes. We see longer days, warmer temperatures, the snow melting away, and the grass and flowers reappearing. Springtime brings us closer to summertime, and a break from the cold winter season.

But, springtime can also bring us some increased risks for your pet. With more wildlife out and about, and more damp soil and standing water, the risk for leptospirosis increases too!

What is leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis (or lepto) is an infectious disease caused by the leptospira bacteria. This bacteria can be passed to your dog through the urine of infected animals (such as deer, raccoons, skunks, and rodents). The bacteria can also survive in an environment where damp soil or stagnant water exists.

Are all dogs at risk for lepto?

Dogs with the highest risk for lepto are those that:

  • hunt and work,
  • go near water including ponds/creeks/lakes,
  • live in areas that share space with increased wildlife,
  • live in an area of frequent flooding or lots of rain, and
  • go to walking trails or parks that may have standing puddles, ponds, or access to wildlife.

People can get leptospirosis, too! Lepto is a zoonotic disease, which simply means a disease that can be passed from animals to people. If your dog is exposed to leptospira, he can pass leptospirosis on to your family.

This disease is usually transmitted through contact with infected urine. Lepto can enter a pet or person via the nose, mouth, eye, and even through open sores or scratches on the skin.

Is my city dog is safe from leptospirosis?

Not necessarily! Remember that rodents (like mice and rats) can be carriers of lepto. There tend to be more and more rodent issues in cities as people continue to build up and out.

What are the signs of lepto?

The hard part about lepto is that it can look like a number of things as it tends to have very broad signs and symptoms. In some severe cases, symptoms can progress very rapidly and can potentially be fatal.

Common signs of infection include:

  • lethargy
  • depression
  • decreased to absent appetite
  • vomiting
  • fever
  • some can show signs of jaundice (yellowing of skin, gums, or eyes)

What should I do if my dog shows those symptoms?

Call your veterinarian as soon as possible if your dog is showing any of the symptoms listed above. With lepto, as well as most other diseases or conditions, early diagnosis and treatment lead to the best chance for recovery.

Your vet will want to do a complete exam and run some bloodwork to look for potential changes in the liver and kidneys. If the doctor sees something suspicious, she will want to do further testing to definitively diagnose your pet with lepto.

Is leptospirosis treatable?

Your dog has a higher chance of making a full recovery if you identify the disease in its early stages. In fact, most dogs respond quickly to antibiotics. Depending on the severity of the disease, your vet may recommend a long course of antibiotics.

If your dog shows signs of significant kidney and or liver damage, your vet may need to use more aggressive treatments. Your dog may need to stay at the vet clinic to receive IV fluid therapy and medications in addition to antibiotics.

For some severely infected dogs, the liver and/or kidney damage may be irreversible. And for some dogs, despite treatment, lepto can be fatal.

How can I try to prevent leptospirosis?

While there is no way to completely eliminate the risk for lepto, you can help reduce the risk.

  1. Vaccinate: If your dog’s lifestyle puts him at risk for this disease, ask your veterinarian to vaccinate him. While no vaccine is 100% effective, it can help to dramatically reduce your pet’s risk of contracting leptospirosis.
  2. Control wildlife: Try to keep wild animals (including mice and rodents) away from the areas your dog frequents. Remember, some wildlife can be carriers of lepto and can pass it to your pet via their urine.
  3. Avoid Standing Water and Slow Moving Creeks: Drain areas of standing water near your home. Do not allow your dog to swim and play in slow-moving water sources. These are places where wildlife could be present and could pass lepto on to your dog.

Talk to your veterinarian if you have questions about leptospirosis. Our dogs like to roam and explore, and we can’t keep them encased in protective bubbles. We can, however, do our best to make their lives as healthy and as long as possible!

Dr. Heintz and her dog, MimiDr. Heintz is a small and exotic animal veterinarian at Countrycare Animal Complex in Green Bay, WI. She earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Illinois – Urbana/Champaign. Her passion is helping all animals, whether furry, scaly, or feathered, lead long and healthy lives.