What is leptospirosis?
Leptospirosis is a disease caused by exposure to a bacteria called leptospira, which are spread through the urine of infected animals. This urine can end up in soil, mud, and stagnant water, allowing the bacteria to survive there for a period of weeks or even months! Once in your pet, leptospira travel through the bloodstream, (causing many unwanted symptoms), and eventually settle in the kidneys where they begin to reproduce.
If your pets come in contact with the leptospira bacteria through abraded or water-softened skin, or drink contaminated water, they are at high risk of contracting this unwanted disease. If your pet becomes infected, it is likely they were drinking, swimming, or walking through contaminated waters, like Archie & Chance in the pictures below. Water can become contaminated from wild animals who carry the disease–mostly commonly raccoons and rats. Most cases occur in late summer and early autumn, so this is a period when you should be extra careful. Pets and working breeds that spend time in wooded or swampy areas are more likely to catch leptospirosis. Dogs that spend their lives indoors or in areas that are not contaminated by carrier wildlife are less likely to become infected.
What problems does leptospirosis cause?
Leptospirosis is a life-threatening disease, and kidney failure is a very common result, causing the ability to produce urine to become endangered and the condition to escalate quickly. Acute kidney failure affects 90% of dogs with leptospirosis; 10-20% of these also experience liver failure as well!
How prevalent is leptospirosis in Canada?
The prevalence of this disease is relatively steady between Canada and the United States, with 677 cases found of 1,819,792 dogs examined at 22 veterinary teaching hospitals between 1970-1998. So, the prevalence in this study comes out to 37/100,000 dogs. Although it seems small, the prevalence of infected dogs has increased significantly since 1983, which means vaccination is important. It should also be noted that “male dogs were at significantly greater risk of leptospirosis than were female dogs; dogs between 4 and 6.9 years old and between 7 and 10 years old were at significantly greater risk than dogs < 1 year old; and herding dogs, hounds, working dogs, and mixed-breed dogs were at significantly greater risk than companion dogs” (AVMA, 2002).
Sometimes, no symptoms occur at all, but when symptoms do occur, they most often take the form of fever, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, refusal to eat, severe weakness and depression, stiffness, severe muscle pain, inability to have puppies, excessive drinking (a symptom of acute kidney failure after sudden fever), jaundice, and excess bleeding. Younger animals tend to be more severely affected, and the disease is most common in large breed dogs. Sad Fact: There may be a genetic predisposition for leptospirosis in German Shepherd dogs.
How can I prevent and treat leptospirosis in my pets?
The most important prevention strategy against leptospirosis is vaccination. There are many different strains of leptospires, about 200, but there are 5 main ones which cause the disease! The vaccine does not prevent against all strains, but it does protect against the main four. It should be noted that the incidence of adverse reactions for this particular vaccine is slightly higher than other common vaccines. For this reason, generally only at-risk pets are vaccinated and the vaccine can be given on a separate day from other vaccines as an extra precaution.
Following the leptospirosis vaccine, a small number of dogs may experience a local reaction such as pain at the injection site. This can occur from 30 minutes to 1 week after the injection. There are medications that can be given to make your pet more comfortable. Please seek advice if your pet appears sore.
While relatively rare, some dogs will experience an anaphylactic (acutely allergic) response. This reaction is characterized by vomiting, facial swelling, itching, increased heart rate and/or the presence of hives. Additionally, the gums may appear very pale in colour, and the limbs may be cold to the touch. This type of reaction usually occurs within a few minutes to a few hours after the vaccine.
Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening emergency requiring prompt medical attention. All reactions should be reported immediately to your veterinarian or your local emergency clinic so that treatment can be given in a timely manner. It is good practice not to leave your pet unattended the day the vaccine is given.
Besides vaccines, some other tips involve keeping rodent problems under control, making sure your garbage is covered to prevent raccoon traffic, washing hands after coming in contact with an animal’s excrement, or avoiding handling completely if possible. Treatment can be as easy as administering antibiotics, but may require more complicated methods such as hydration and nutritional therapy. When testing for leptospirosis in your pet, it may be difficult to receive accurate results if the animal has been vaccinated within three months of testing. Blood tests and urine samples are the most common testing methods for this kind of disease but tests can take time. Since testing can be challenging, treatment is often undertaken prior to receiving the test results.
Can I get leptospirosis?
YES. Based on monitoring by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1/3 of leptospirosis cases in humans come from contact with infected dogs, and 1/3 come from contact with infected rats. Without prevention, leptospirosis can cause kidney damage, meningitis (inflammation of the membrane around the brain and spinal cord), liver failure, respiratory distress, and even death.
Brooks, W. C. (2001, January 1). Leptospirosis. Retrieved from Veterinary Partner website: <http://www.veterinarypartner.com/Content.plx?P=A&S=0&C=0&A=573>.
VIN Community Contributors. (2004, October 19). Leptospirosis and Your Pet: a CDC Fact Sheet. Retrieved from Veterinary Partner Website: <http://www.veterinarypartner.com/Content.plx?P=A&S=0&C=0&A=1745>.
AVMA. (2002, January 1). Prevalence of and Risk Factors for Leptospirosis Among Dogs in the United States and Canada: 677 Cases (1970–1998). Retrieved from American Veterinary Medical Association website: <http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2002.220.53>.
(2012, January 13). Leptospirosis. Retrieved from Center for Disease Control and Prevention website: <http://www.cdc.gov/leptospirosis/index.html>.
Content Contributor: Dr. Sandy Drury DVM