Leptospirosis is caused by the bacteria Leptospira interrogans and has many Leptospira strains, or serovars, that can infect a variety of wild and pet animal species worldwide. Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease, which means it can be transmitted from animals to humans. Although most human exposure occurs from contact with contaminated water, owners of dogs with leptospirosis are also at risk of contracting the disease.

Is my pet at risk for contracting leptospirosis?

Infected animals shed Leptospira bacteria in their urine, and the most common exposure route is by mucous membrane contact with contaminated water, such as when a dog drinks water contaminated with urine. Leptospirosis exists in many wild animal species, and when infected animals urinate near a pond, lake, or puddle, the bacteria can enter the water and infect thirsty animals. Other, less likely means of transmission include:

  • Contact with urine-contaminated soil or bedding
  • A bite wound from an infected animal
  • Ingestion of an infected animal
  • Mating with an infected animal
  • Transplacental infection from an infected mother to her puppies

Dogs with a high risk of leptospirosis exposure include those who have access to outdoor water sources, such as lakes and ponds; those exposed to wild animals; and those who roam freely through the woods or over farmland. 

Cats rarely develop leptospirosis, and those who do typically suffer only mild clinical disease.  

How can leptospirosis affect my dog?

The most common manifestation of canine leptospirosis is acute kidney failure, although other, concurrent disease forms are possible, including:

  • Acute liver failure
  • Bleeding disorders
  • Pulmonary hemorrhage and breathing problems
  • Ocular inflammation

Infected dogs may experience clinical disease that can range from a mild, asymptomatic illness to life-threatening kidney and liver failure, with possible clinical signs that include:

  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Decreased appetite
  • Muscle pain
  • Jaundice (i.e., yellow discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes)
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloody urine, feces, or vomit
  • Petechiae, or pin-point red spots on the skin
  • Urination changes, including increased or decreased urine production

After the initial period of acute illness subsides, dogs may recover, but the disease may progress to chronic, life-threatening kidney and liver failure.

How is leptospirosis diagnosed in pets?

If your dog is at risk of leptospirosis exposure and displays any clinical signs, he should be examined by a veterinary health-care team immediately. Your trusted family veterinarian can diagnose leptospirosis; however, if your pet becomes ill during the night or on a weekend when your primary hospital is closed, Urgent Pet Care Omaha can help. Diagnosis is made through a blood test that is sent to a diagnostic laboratory, but other tests, such as urine analysis, X-rays, and ultrasound, may be used to help your veterinarian thoroughly evaluate your pet and his disease severity.

How is leptospirosis in pets treated?

Since leptospirosis is caused by a bacteria, the treatment is mainly antibiotic administration plus supportive care, such as intravenous fluids and medications. Newly diagnosed dogs often spend several days in the hospital on intravenous fluids to protect their kidneys and monitor treatment response. Once your dog is stable, he can typically continue treatment at home after a few days. Although leptospirosis is curable, organ damage may be permanent with life-long effects. 

How can I prevent my pet from acquiring leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis is a dangerous threat to many dogs, but, fortunately, an effective vaccine is available that offers protection. The best way to protect your pooch from acquiring a Leptospira infection is by starting vaccinations when he is young. Puppies should receive a minimum of two vaccinations, and adult dogs should receive a booster vaccine every 12 months. The vaccine your dog receives will contain the serovars of Leptospira interrogans common to your region, which will be determined by the local wildlife hosts that carry the bacteria.  

In addition to vaccination, you can reduce your dog’s leptospirosis risk by following these tips:

  • Don’t let your dog drink from lakes, ponds, puddles, or other outdoor water sources
  • Don’t let your dog wander freely 
  • Keep your dog away from areas where wild animals live
  • Prevent your dog from eating wild animals, such as rodents

How can I protect myself from leptospirosis exposure?

Most human leptospirosis cases are caused by exposure to contaminated water. The bacteria enter the body through mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, and mouth when people swim in lakes and ponds contaminated with urine from infected animals. Owners of pets with leptospirosis must take precautions against accidental exposure, such as wearing gloves when cleaning up urine. The best way to protect yourself against exposure from your dog is to ensure he stays infection-free by keeping his vaccines current.

Your family veterinarian can vaccinate your dog for leptospirosis, but if you have questions after hours, or think your dog may have the disease, contact us.