What is Leptospirosis?
Leptospirosis is an infectious disease that is caused by multiple strains of bacteria called leptospira. It can cause kidney and liver damage that can be fatal in some animals if not treated immediately.
Dogs contract the leptospira bacteria by coming into contact with contaminated water or soil in the environment. Cats rarely contract leptospirosis, but it is possible. Wildlife and livestock, including squirrels, raccoons, skunks, cows, pigs, horses, and rodents can carry the bacteria and excrete it through their urine. Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease, meaning that humans can become infected after coming into contact with it.
Contrary to popular belief, leptospirosis is not just found in rural areas with lots of wooded areas or lakes. Because rodents, including rats and mice, often carry leptospirosis, it is frequently found in urban areas as well.
In fact, a study in 2017 showed that Marion County in Indiana has one of the highest probabilities for a pet to test positive to exposure to the leptospira bacteria.
Symptoms of Lepto
Unfortunately, the symptoms of leptospirosis in canines varies greatly. It can also mimic many other diseases which makes it difficult to diagnose. Some patients never have any noticeable symptoms at all. Other patients present with lethargy, fever, muscle pain, GI symptoms (vomiting, diarrhea, decreased appetite), or urinary symptoms (increased urination or drinking, changes to urine color).
The disease can progress to liver or kidney failure in some patients which can be fatal without treatment. Even after treatment, some patients have persistent kidney or liver disease.
Diagnosis and Treatment
There are multiple tests a veterinarian may run if they suspect a patient could have leptospirosis. These include a CBC (complete blood count to check white cell and red cell counts), serum chemistry (to evaluate organ function, especially for the liver and kidneys), and a urinalysis. While the results of these tests may point to leptospirosis as the cause of the dog’s symptoms, the only way to officially diagnose it is through two special lab tests, a DNA PCR (detect the presence of infectious organisms in DNA) or a MAT test (detects antibodies of specific types of bacteria.)
Treatment depends on the severity of the disease and ranges from oral antibiotics to kill the bacteria to hospitalization for IV fluid therapy and aggressive supportive care in symptomatic patients. If treatment is started early, patients can make a full recovery.
How do you Prevent Lepto?
Thankfully, there is a vaccine available for dogs that prevents the four most common strains of leptospirosis. While the vaccine does not prevent every strain of leptospirosis in existence, it greatly reduces the chance of infection in vaccinated patients.
When initially starting the leptospirosis vaccine, dogs need to receive two injections spaced three to four weeks apart. After the initial series, the leptospirosis vaccine is boostered once every year. The vaccine is bacterial and, because of this, may cause some muscle soreness for 24 to 48 hours after it is given. More severe reactions to the vaccine are uncommon.
Limiting pets’ contact with puddles and bodies of water, especially after periods of heavy rainfall, may also help reduce the risk of exposure to leptospirosis.