What is Leptospirosis Disease In Dogs?
Leptospirosis (lepto) is a serious bacterial disease which can affect many animals. It is rare in cats, but much more common in dogs. Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease which means it can be passed from animals to humans.
What Causes Leptospirosis?
Leptospirosis is caused by spiral-shaped bacteria from the Leptospira genus. Incidence occurs worldwide and frequency of infections is on the rise. Leptospirosis used to be considered a disease of rural dogs but is now being increasingly seen in urban dogs due to urbanisation of rural areas and increased contact with wildlife species such as raccoons, skunks, opossums, and rodents.
Leptospira bacteria survive especially well in warm, humid areas, and are often found in stagnant water (e.g. ponds). Dogs typically become infected by drinking or swimming in water contaminated with Leptospira organisms shed in urine by the local wildlife. Although leptospirosis can occur anywhere in the UK, it is more common in areas that experience high rainfall. Dogs that swim or drink out of rivers, streams and lakes have the highest risk but transmission can occur whenever there is a contaminated water source, even the smallest puddle on the street or in your garden can be contaminated. Rats and mice can shed the organisms and there are reports of dogs that spend most of their time indoors contracting leptospirosis from being in close proximity with infected rodents.
Once Leptospira bacteria get into the dog’s body, they spread to many types of tissues via the bloodstream for a week. The immune system may successfully fight the bacteria from most of the body, but the bacteria may “hide out” in the kidneys and liver, resulting in hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) and nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys). The bacteria can be shed in the urine for many months after infection. Treatment with antibiotics may help prevent long term shedding in the urine.
Signs and Symptoms of Leptospirosis in dogs
The severity of symptoms varies, and depends on the dog (age, immune response, vaccination status), the strain of Leptospira, and other factors. Some dogs may have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, but severe cases can be fatal. Signs and symptoms may include:
- joint or muscle pain – this may manifest as a reluctance to move
- decreased appetite
- vomiting and diarrhoea
- discharge from nose and eyes
- frequent urination – may be followed by lack of urination
- yellowing of the gums, membranes around the eyes, and skin (jaundice)
Diagnosis of Leptospirosis
A definitive diagnosis is usually made by demonstrating the presence of the bacteria in samples, usually urine, or finding increasing levels of antibodies to Leptospira over time, which shows an active immune response through a test called MAT. A single antibody test may be positive due to past exposure to Leptospira bacteria (e.g. an infection with no symptoms) or vaccination.
It is also important to note that Leptospira bacteria can be found in the urine of dogs that may not have active symptoms due to the Leptospira, so it is important to clarify if the symptoms are due to Leptospirosis or other possible causes. A variety of other laboratory tests and radiographs can help confirm the diagnosis.
Treating Leptospirosis in dogs
Antibiotics are used to kill Leptospira bacteria and the earlier the treatment is started, the better. If treatment is not started early enough, kidney and/or liver failure may occur and the prognosis for recovery at this stage is much worse.
Preventing Leptospirosis in dogs
As with any disease, prevention is much more effective than treatment. A vaccine against leptospirosis is available and should be given to dogs whose lifestyle puts them at risk, such as those that spend a lot of time around water or live in areas where wildlife is common. If your area has a lot of skunks, raccoons, opossums, or rodents then you should consider vaccination. If you are unsure, ask your veterinarian for their recommendation and whether or not leptospirosis is common in your area or not.
Care for a Dog with Leptospirosis
Leptospirosis can cause flu-like symptoms in people, which in some cases can progress to serious illness. If your pet has been diagnosed with Leptospirosis, the risks can be managed, primarily with careful hygiene.
People can prevent leptospirosis by taking care not to come in contact with animal urine or bodily fluids, avoiding water that may be contaminated and by wearing footwear around soil that may be contaminated with animal urine.
Awareness and a few simple precautions is really all that is needed to prevent Leptospirosis Disease In Dogs from becoming a greater threat to our pets and ourselves.