It seems that most people haven’t. Leptospirosis (a.k.a.”Lepto”) is an infectious disease that has been around throughout history, but seems to be relatively unknown to most pet owners. It can infect dogs as well as many other species of animals, and is zoonotic, which means it can spread from animals to humans. In fact, according to the CDC, each year over 1 million cases of Leptospirosis in people occur worldwide, with over 60,000 human deaths due to this disease. Recently in our practice we have been seeing cases of Leptospirosis in dogs, including “Duffy”, the Cairn Terrier, who never leaves his own back yard! It is a disease that is in our area and deserves better awareness from dog owners.
Leptospirosis is caused by a corkscrew-shaped bacteria that likes to live in damp soil and standing water. In our area, the most common carriers of the disease are raccoons, skunks, opossums, and rats, and these animals spread the bacteria in their urine. Deer, horses, pigs, and other livestock can also be carriers. Outbreaks tend to occur after heavy rainfall and flooding, and the disease enters its host through drinking of contaminated water, as well as through skin abrasions and contact with mucus membranes. Traditionally Leptospirosis has been associated with dogs living on farms or rural environments, but in recent years as more wildlife seem to be happily living in our yards and neighborhoods, suburban dogs are now at higher risk.
When dogs become infected they tend to run a high fever and can initially have vomiting or diarrhea as well as lethargy and lack of appetite. The organism goes to the kidneys, liver and sometimes the lungs, and can cause severe damage to these organs. Other symptoms include excessive drinking, jaundice, coughing, or difficulty breathing depending on which organ system is affected. Infected dogs can pass the bacteria in their urine and potentially expose their owners to the disease, so precautions should be taken when handling or cleaning up an infected dog’s urine.
Leptospirosis can be tricky to diagnose as it can have variable symptoms and can look like other diseases. Blood tests are needed to confirm the infection and to check for internal organ involvement. If the infection is caught early many dogs do well with antibiotic treatment and supportive care, and they can recover as long as there is not severe organ damage.
The good news is dogs can be vaccinated to help prevent leptospirosis, and the current vaccines cover four of the most common strains of the bacteria. Nearly all dogs are at risk of infection, especially those who swim in ponds or swamps and spend a lot of time outdoors. If your dog is not vaccinated against leptospirosis, or if you are not sure, talk to your veterinarian about getting him updated, and enjoy the outdoors with one less thing to worry about!