Q: I recently heard of a dog that is very ill with leptospirosis. What is this disease and how can I prevent my dog from getting it?
A: Leptospirosis is caused by a type of motile bacteria called a spirochete. The bacteria are present in the urine of animals that have the disease. It will survive in water such as streams, ponds and puddles. It is more commonly found during the warmer, rainy seasons. The bacteria can be carried by dogs and wild animals such as raccoons, skunks, and rodents. It is also found in farm animals. A dog becomes infected when it comes in contact with water contaminated with urine from an animal that has the disease. The spirochetes enter the body through the mucous membranes of the mouth, eyes, or nose. These organisms can cause severe damage to the liver and kidneys. Signs of infection include fever, lethargy, muscle soreness, appetite loss, vomiting and diarrhea. In more severe cases, the membranes of the mouth and eyes will appear yellow (jaundiced). Kidney failure with weakness and dehydration can occur. Usually, infected animals will need to be hospitalized and treated with antibiotics and intravenous fluids.
Since this is a very serious disease, it is best to prevent your dog from becoming infected. Vaccines which are given yearly are available and effective. In the past, vaccines for leptospirosis had a tendency to cause some undesirable side effects. The newer vaccines are less likely to cause these reactions. This should be discussed with your veterinarian. He or she will recommend what is best for your dog based on its own personal history and lifestyle.
To avoid exposure do not allow your dog to drink from any water source that could be contaminated. Swimming in lakes and ponds involves some risk. Bottled water can be used when going to any area where exposure is more likely.