Leptospirosis is a disease caused by bacteria of the genus Leptospira that can be found in water and soil throughout the country. It is more common in areas with moderate temperatures and high rainfall. Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease which means that it may be spread from animals to humans. However the majority of human infections result from recreational activities involving water as opposed to exposure to an infected pet.
Leptospirosis infection occurs by direct contact with infected urine from another animal, contaminated water sources, bite wounds or from bacterial exposure with damaged skin, by eating the carcass of an infected animal or from exposure at birth.
Once the leptospira bacteria enters the body they spread rapidly to the bloodstream then to other organs. If the body is able to mount an appropriate immune response the bacteria is cleared from most organs and the blood stream. In some cases the bacteria may “hide” from the immune system, the most common locations are the kidneys and reproductive system. These subclinical infections result in the animal becoming a carrier and that animal may shed bacteria in it’s urine or genital secretions for several months.
Early on in infection a dog may show no signs of illness. The most common early signs that owners will notice are lethargy, inappetance, gastrointestinal upset as well as back pain. This back pain is caused by inflammation of the kidneys. Kidney damage leading to kidney failure is common with leptospirosis infections. Due to this changes in urination ranging from increased volumes to lack of urination may be noted. Liver failure with or without kidney involvement may also be a result of leptospirosis infection. Signs of liver disease are jaundice ( a yellow color) noted in the whites of the eyes, the gums and skin. Less common signs of liver involvement may include abnormal bleeding such as spontaneous bruising, nose bleeds or bright red blood in bowel movements or vomit. Other signs exhibited are muscle pain and weakness, stiffness with movement, reluctance to move, trembling. In some dogs an increase or decrease in body temperature has also been noted.
Leptospirosis is diagnosed with specialized testing available through your veterinarian. Other diagnostics may include a complete blood count, full blood chemistry analysis, urinalysis testing as well as ultrasound to identify what organs may be involved.
With early and aggressive treatment the chances of recovery are good, however permanent kidney and liver damage are possible. Treatment typically consists of intravenous fluid therapy, antibiotic administration and supportive care in the hospital. Because this illness is transmissible to humans most patients will have a urinary catheter placed with what is called a closed collection system attached to ensure that the doctors and technicians providing care are exposed as little as possible.
There is a vaccine available for leptospirosis, a yearly booster of this vaccine is important as to not have a lag in coverage. This vaccine provides coverage for the 4 most common subtypes of leptospira bacteria, this means that dogs are still susceptible to any of the other subtypes. A discussion with your family veterinarian will help you determine if your dog may be at risk for exposure.
If your pet is diagnosed with leptospirosis you must take care to protect yourself. Steps that should be taken at home are avoiding contact with your dog’s urine, if your dog urinates in the house quickly clean the area with a household disinfectant and wear gloves to avoid skin contact with the urine, encourage your dog to urinate away from standing water or areas where people or other animals will have access lastly wash your hands after handling your pet.