Leptospirosis, more commonly known as lepto, is a deadly bacterial disease in dogs that is most commonly spread by wildlife. It is a disease that can affect our pets as well as humans. For many years lepto occurrence among pets was rare, it was primarily known as a wildlife or livestock disease. However, lepto in pets has been diagnosed more frequently in the past few years and the incidence has increase dramatically. More than 37% of dogs in metro areas have been reported to have lepto. Today, lepto is the number one infectious cause of acute kidney failure in dogs. All dogs are susceptible to lepto – all breeds, ages, and sizes.
Lepto is transmitted either directly, meaning through direct contact with infected tissue or secretions, or indirectly, meaning through contact with contaminated water, soil, or food. The most common means of transmission is by urine-contaminated water. Lepto organisms are able to survive for months in cool moist earth, assuming they do not actually freeze or become exposed to direct sunlight. Once they are in the soil, they readily wash into bodies of water, including puddles. Urine contamination usually comes from wildlife but also can come from infected dogs. The organisms quickly spread through the bloodstream leading to fever, joint pain, and general malaise. The organism distributes to multiple organs and wreaks havoc. Which organs are most affected depends on the variant of the organism, the immunity of the dog, health status, and the age of the dog. The organism eventually settles in the kidneys and begins to reproduce, leading to further inflammation and then kidney failure in 90 percent of patients. Additionally, 10-20% also have liver failure.
The leptospira organisms are spiral-shaped bacteria called spirochetes that come in many different forms. Of the forms that cause disease, there are over 250 serovars, or variants, that have been named and at least 10 are important for our pets. Vaccine prevention against lepto is only available for the 4 most commonly infective serovars called canicola, grippotyphosa, pomona and icterohaemorragiae. Some vaccines cover all four serovars while others cover only two out of four. As a result, it is important to make sure that the vaccine your dog receives is a vaccine for all four serovars. Another important aspect of prevention includes controlling wildlife in the pet’s environment and removing standing water.
Fortunately, lepto is sensitive to many common antibiotics. Generally, a two part treatment is required. The first part halts the blood borne infection while the second is to clear the leptospires from the kidneys. Intravenous fluids are crucial to support blood flow through the damaged kidneys so that recovery is possible. Any areas at home that have been contaminated with urine should be disinfected with an iodine-based product and gloves should be worn while cleaning up any urine. Prognosis is guarded depending on the extent of organ damage, but, if caught early, appropriate treatment can result in 80-90 percent survival rates.
The same disease symptoms occur in humans as would be seen in dogs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitor lepto cases in people. They report that one third of human infections come from contact with infected dogs and one third come from contact with rats, usually through field work. Recreational activities involving water and exposure to flood waters are also associated with human leptospirosis outbreaks.
If your pet has become infected, it most likely came into contact with the bacteria in the environment or was exposed to infected animals. Your pet may have been drinking, swimming, or walking through contaminated water. Because of increased building and development into woodland areas that were previously inhabited by wildlife, pets may be exposed to more wildlife, such as deer, squirrel, raccoons, skunks, or opossums that are infected with lepto.
The clinical signs of leptospirosis vary and are nonspecific. Sometimes pets do not have any symptoms. Common clinical signs that have been reported in dogs include fever, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, refusal to eat, severe weakness and depression, stiffness, severe muscle pain, and infertility. Generally younger animals are more seriously affected than older animals.
If you think your pet may have lepto, contact your veterinarian immediately. Your veterinarian can perform tests to help determine whether or not your pet has the disease. The earlier treatment is started, the better the change of recovery. The time between exposure to the bacteria and development of disease is usually 5 to 14 days, but can be as short as a few days or as long as 30 days or more. The time from presentation of symptoms to when treatments are started is critical! Lepto should be considered if your dog has a fever, vomiting, loss of appetite, diarrhea, or lethargy. Remember, your family Veterinarian can help guide you through your pet’s care throughout their lives!