We used to think leptospirosis was a disease of farm dogs, but just like the wildlife that carries the disease, it’s spreading throughout the suburbs and even into our cities. Leptospirosis is one of the most challenging diseases we see in our pets, and as the number of wild animals carrying and shedding the leptospiral organism continues to increase, the greater the risk to indoor dogs. By understanding the ways your dog can contract leptospirosis, and knowing what to look for, pet parents can better protect our furry kids.

How does my dog get leptospirosis?

The disease is caused by a bacteria (a type called a “spirochete”) that sets up house in the liver and kidneys. It’s primarily passed to the rest of the world through urine. The bacteria can stay alive for quite a while in warm water, and that’s where the main threat comes from. Any puddle or surface water that could be contaminated by urine from any animal is a potential source of infection.

Dogs can be infected by drinking from puddles or coming into contact with contaminated water through an open cut or mucous membrane such as the nose and mouth. Since the leptospira bacteria can infect a large number of wild and domestic species, any puddle should be suspect. While dogs that go hunting with their owners or spend a lot of time playing outside are at a higher risk, any dog, even those little guys who never leave their yards, can be exposed.

What are the symptoms?

Most dogs exposed to the bacteria don’t get sick, but those with weak immune systems or dogs with a high infecting dose are at risk for serious disease. Once in the body, the spirochete travels through the bloodstream and settles in the kidneys, the liver or both. As the spirochete reproduces, it damages the surrounding tissue, makes its way into the urine and starts the cycle all over again. Not surprisingly, the body’s immune system doesn’t like that happening, but signs of leptospirosis are generally pretty vague. Fevers without an obvious cause, increased lethargy or reluctance to move, vomiting and diarrhea and lack of appetite could all be signs that should be taken seriously.

How do you prevent it?

There is a vaccine that is reasonably effective, and dogs that are at high risk should definitely be vaccinated. Your vet is the best person to advise whether your dog should be vaccinated given your location and other risk factors. Owners can try to avoid puddles, but sometimes (like with my Golden Retriever, Bridger), that can be an uphill battle. Certainly, avoid letting your dog drink from stagnant, warm puddles.

Is there a treatment?

Once the infection sets in, the best treatment is supportive care and a full course of antibiotics. The prognosis for recovery completely depends on how far the disease has advanced and how extensive the organ damage is. Usually we can pull these guys through with enough care, although long treatments can be exhausting and expensive.

There is still a lot about this disease that is unknown, and we are lacking good diagnostic and therapeutic tools. Of course, this highlights the real need for more research.

We don’t know how prevalent the disease is in different locations, which was a question to be answered by a study funded by Morris Animal Foundation at Purdue University. You can learn more about this study, as well as the more than 240 other studies being made possible by Morris Animal Foundation, at www.morrisanimalfoundation.org.

We’ll keep looking for answers to the most important problems facing our animal friends. But we could really use your help!

May 21, 2015
Pet Health

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