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Leptospirosis is becoming a more prevalent disease in the Bergen County area. Dogs of all ages, breeds and sizes are susceptible to
this infection.

What is Leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis is an infection in warm-blooded mammals caused by spirochete bacteria similar to the bacteria that cause Lyme disease and syphilis in humans. It is a serious disease and has been noted to be an increasing threat across the US, including northern New Jersey. Urban sprawl resulting in increased exposure to wildlife, such as raccoons, skunks, opossums, coyotes, foxes and rats combined with a wet environment may account for the dramatic increase in cases noted at Oradell Animal Hospital. The bacteria live in wet soil or standing water and can cause flu-like symptoms, which may develop into a severe, life-threatening illness that affects the kidneys, liver, lungs, eyes and nervous system.

How do dogs become infected with lepto?

The most common way both small and large dogs become infected with leptospirosis is by coming in contact with the urine of infected animals typically in wet ground or in standing water. Leptospires enter the body through the dog’s eyes, nose, or mouth, or through a break in the skin caused by a cut or scratch. Once a dog has become infected, the leptospires reproduce, multiply, and begin to spread to other parts of the body. After the organism enters the body, it typically reaches the bloodstream and causes clinical symptoms within 4-12 days after infection. If the infection reaches the kidneys and bladder, the dog may become a carrier of leptospirosis, spreading the bacteria each time it urinates.

What are the clinical signs of the disease and how serious is it?

Symptoms include lethargy, depression, not eating, vomiting, fever, and possibly jaundice. Jaundice is noted by a yellow cast in the gums of the mouth and whites of the eyes. The dog may be reluctant to move due to muscle or kidney pain. At least 80% of the infected dogs develop serious kidney problems, and with some developing acute kidney failure.

How is the disease diagnosed, and what can be done if my dog is infected?

Your veterinarian is the best person to diagnose and treat leptospirosis as it can look like many other diseases. It is a challenge to diagnose quickly and may require numerous blood and urine tests. This process can be frustrating and costly. While waiting on the diagnostic test results, your veterinarian may be recommending a combination of intravenous fluids and antibiotics, as well as other aggressive therapies.

What can I do to prevent this disease in my pet?

You can try and lower your dog’s risk of leptospirosis by limiting exposure to potential sources of contamination (stagnant water, rodents, unmaintained canine facilities); however, the best way to protect your dog is with an annual vaccination. This offers the greatest protection against the 4 most common types of leptospires and is very safe. Our hospital recommends the vaccine be a core part of every pet’s vaccination protocol. Check with your veterinarian and see if your pet can be vaccinated.

What is the public health significance of this disease?

Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease, meaning that the potential is present for the bacteria to be transmitted from animals to humans. The major public health consideration is with the contaminated urine from infected animals. This urine can be highly infectious and the organism can be transmitted to humans through mucous membranes or abraded skin. Standing water from ponds or plastic covers collecting water in yards can be a major source of infection. Even damp ground has been found to harbor the organism. It is important to wash your hands or your children’s hands especially when handling anything that might have your dog’s urine on it. Leptospires are very susceptible to most disinfectants, soaps, and many other household cleaners even at a low concentration. Leptospirosis in humans may be misdiagnosed because the symptoms are similar to the flu. Potentially exposed persons with symptoms of leptospirosis should notify their physician of possible exposure to avoid delaying appropriate therapy.