Your Dog And Leptospirosis

Guest post by Lorie Huston, DVM

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:
  • fever
  • lethargy
  • weakness
  • decreased appetite
  • joint and muscle pain
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • 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 in dogs is treatable with antibiotics. If diagnosed and treated early in the course of disease, it may be possible to minimize the amount of damage to the kidneys and/or liver and decrease the length of the recovery period. However, in more advanced cases, more aggressive treatment is likely to be needed and may include fluid therapy to combat dehydration and even dialysis to remove toxins from the blood stream while the pet recovers. Leptospirosis can be fatal in some cases.

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.


  1. 2 questions for Dr. Huston

    #1 - how common are lepto infections, as in do you see it often in your practice?

    #2 - It is necessary for "city dogs" to get lepto vaccinations?

  2. Dear Karen

    Dr. Lorie will answer as soon as she can, I'm figuring later today.

  3. Hi, Karen.

    Good to see you here :-)

    In answer to your questions:
    #1 - That really depends on the area in which you're located and it can vary quite a bit from one geographical location to another. In my practice and in my locality, we see it often enough that I consider it to be a threat to most of my canine patients, even the city dogs. The veterinarians in your area should be able to give you a pretty good idea how prevalent the disease is in your area.

    #2 - As in question #1, it depends on where you're located and the incidence of infection. City dogs are not necessarily protected though just because they live in the city. Where I practice in Providence, rats and other rodents are, unfortunately, common in our neighborhoods and can spread leptospirosis.

    I'll be providing more information on my blog shortly about leptospirosis vaccination, so stay tuned there!

    Here is an article you might find interesting: This article talks about an "outbreak" of leptospirosis due to road construction!

  4. You know it really should be said that the RISKS and CHANCES of getting leptospirosis for the average dog, are FAR FAR FAR LESS than the risks and dangers the vaccines for it pose. Some dogs, including the Jack Russell terrier have a gene they carry where getting the lepto vaccine can make them extremely sicker than other dogs without this gene. Please see and PLEASE EVERYONE DO NOT GIVE IN TO THESE SCARE TACTICS!

  5. Thanks Dr. Huston!
    My vet has never brought up the lepto questions, so I'm assuming that it's really not a big deal in Toronto.

  6. @Karen: You're welcome. And I'm sure if your vet hasn't spoken to you about it, it probably isn't an issue there :-)

    @anon mouse: Thank you for sharing your opinion.

    I am not advocating leptospirosis vaccines for all dogs, nor do most other veterinarians to my knowledge. You are correct in stating that for SOME dogs, the risks of the vaccine may outweigh the risk of actually being exposed to the disease. If that is the case, the vaccine should NOT be administered.

    However, in other cases, this may not be the situation. In some areas, leptospirosis can be a real problem and the likelihood of exposure to the disease changes depending on the dog's lifestyle also. For dogs at moderate to high risk of exposure, vaccination may be warranted.

    In any case, being aware of the disease and discussing your dog's individual risk with your veterinarian is a wise move for all pet owners. Together, an educated decision can be reached regarding whether or not the vaccine is appropriate for your individual dog.

  7. Dr.Huston,

    My dog,Bandit was confirmed with Leptospirosis.He's a 6 month-old Siberian husky. Currently getting treatment at a vet,he's terribly lethargic and depreseed,has been vomiting for the past few days and just started showing signs of conjuctivitis and eye inflammation .Doctor says his kidney levels are bad and there hasnt been much improvement since we admitted him yesterday,besides the fact that he's not vomiting as much as before,i'm told that the jaundice is next and there's a 50-50 chance of survival?

  8. So sorry about Bandit, Dr. Huston will take a look at your comment as soon as she has a moment.

  9. I'm sorry to hear about Bandit! Unfortunately, kidney failure is one of the potential symptoms of leptospirosis. Liver failure is the other and some dogs suffer one or the other while some suffer both.

    Either way, leptospirosis is a serious disease and is potentially fatal. Treatment consists of appropriate antibiotics and supportive care, which usually includes fluids to battle dehydration, anti-emetic medications to battle nausea and vomiting if necessary, and other nursing care. In some cases, treatment is successful. In others, it is not. It all depends on the severity of disease, the condition of the dog and the response to treatment.

    Good luck with Bandit. I know that this is devastating for you and your family. My thoughts are with all of you.

  10. Dr. Huston

    My husky is 6 months old, she had been bitten by a rat an hour ago. I look at her card, she had been immunized for leptospirosis. Has she been OK? She had taken 3 shots of it.

    1. Leptospirosis is transmitted mainly by contact with urine or drinking water an infected animal urinated in. A healthy rat isn't very likely spread disease through bites, though you do need to tend to the wound. I think that local infection is much more likely than anything else.


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