Leptospirosis is a disease that is seen worldwide. It affects many types of animals, both wild and domestic, including dogs, rats and other rodents, raccoons, skunks, deer and many others. Leptospirosis can also infect people, making the disease even more troublesome. Cats can be infected but feline infection is rare.
Leptospirosis is caused by a bacteria known as a spirochaete or a leptospire, named after its spiral shape. The bacteria is typically spread through contamination of water, soil and other objects with urine or other body fluids from infected animals.
- Dogs may be exposed through drinking, walking through or swimming in contaminated water.
- Infection may also occur through contact of damaged or abraded skin with contaminated soil, water or other objects.
- Contact with reproductive secretions can also transmit leptospirosis.
- Ingestion of tissue infected with the leptospire bacteria can infect an animal.
- Bite wounds are potential sources of infection with leptospirosis as well.
Leptospirosis in dogs can range from mild flu-like symptoms to severe, life-threatening disease. The disease may affect the kidneys and/or the liver of the infected dog.
Symptoms seen with leptospirosis include:
- decreased appetite
- joint and muscle pain
- nausea and/or vomiting
- excessive water consumption
- excessive urination
- jaundice or icterus (a yellow coloration of the skin and mucous membranes usually resulting from liver failure)
- low platelet counts leading to abnormal bleeding
Leptospirosis is also considered to be a zoonotic disease, meaning that it can infect people as well as dogs and other animals. While the risk of exposure to you is minimal with normal day to day contact, if you handle urine, blood or other tissues from an infected dog, you may expose yourself to leptospirosis and proper precautions should be taken, including wearing gloves and using thorough hand washing techniques.
People may also become infected through contact with water, food or soil that has been contaminated with urine from an infected animal. This may happen by eating contaminated food, drinking contaminated water or through contact with broken skin or the membranes in the eyes or nose.
Several types of vaccinations are available for leptospirosis in dogs. Some protect against only two serovars (subtypes) of leptospirosis while others provide protection against four serovars. No vaccine is available that provides protection against all natural occurring serovars. Because the leptospirosis vaccine is considered to be a non-core vaccine, it is important to determine your dog’s risk of exposure and weigh the risks versus the benefits of administering the vaccine. Your veterinarian can help you determine whether leptospirosis is a threat to your dog based on your dog’s lifestyle and the incidence of leptospirosis in your geographic area. Together, you can decide whether vaccination is appropriate for your dog.
Lorie Huston has been practicing veterinary medicine for over 20 years. Besides a successful career in a busy small animal hospital in Providence, RI, Lorie is also a successful freelance writer specializing in pet care and pet health topics. Currently, she is the feature writer for the Pet Care section at Suite101.com and the National Pet Health Examiner at Examiner.com. Lorie also publishes her own blog, The Pet Health Care Gazette and manages an increasingly popular facebook page, The Voice of Pet Care. In addition, she co-moderates DogTalk, a weekly twitter chat that focuses on a variety of dog topics.