Q: The dog next door is sick and the veterinarian has said that he might have leptospirosis. I heard that came from rats, and as far as I know we don’t have rats in our neighborhood. Can you help? We have a dog and we don’t want her to get it.
A: Leptospirosis is a disease caused by spirochete bacteria similar to the bacteria that causes Lyme disease and syphilis in humans. It lives in water or warm, wet soil. It causes a variety of flu-like symptoms, but it can develop into a more severe, life-threatening illness that affects many organs, in dogs it primarily affects the kidneys and liver. It may cause serious life-threatening illness in dogs, other animals, and people throughout the United States and around the world.
The most common way dogs become infected with leptospirosis is by coming in contact with the urine of infected animals (often skunks or raccoons) – usually in water or on wet ground. Dogs become infected by swimming in or drinking contaminated water or by playing in areas where infected urine is present. 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. If the infection reaches the kidneys and bladder, the dog may become a carrier of leptospirosis, spreading the bacteria each time it urinates.
The symptoms of leptospirosis in dogs are usually lethargy, depression, loss of appetite, vomiting, fever, and often times jaundice. Jaundice is noted by a yellow cast in the membranes of the mouth and whites of the eyes. At least 80% of the infected dogs develop serious kidney problems, with some developing acute kidney failure. The dog may also be reluctant to move due to muscle or kidney pain.
Your veterinarian is the best person to diagnose and treat leptospirosis because 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 recommend supportive treatment with a combination of intravenous fluids and antibiotics, as well as other supportive therapies.
You can try and to lower your dog’s risk of leptospirosis by limiting exposure to potential sources of contamination (stagnant water, rodents, damp ground in shaded areas), but the best way to protect your dog is with an annual vaccination that protects against the leading causes of leptospirosis. Currently vaccines protect against the 4 most common types of leptospires. Dogs have been vaccinated for this disease for many years, and the vaccines are almost always safe and well tolerated. Sometimes dogs experience tenderness at the injection site and/or lethargy, but that usually goes away very quickly.
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. People with flu like symptoms who have been exposed to leptospirosis should notify their physician immediately so that appropriate therapy can be started right away.