Your dog insists on jumping into any body of water you come across when out hiking. They love to splash around and get completely soaked, and will inevitably drench you when they shake off. You are aware that your dog could become infected with leptospirosis when playing in natural water sources, but you may not know much about the disease. The team at Kennedy Heights Animal and Bird Hospital wants to educate you on this debilitating illness.

What is leptospirosis and how can my pet be infected?

Leptospirosis, commonly referred to as lepto, is a bacterial infection that can affect humans and animals, and cases have been increasing in Canada. Lepto infection in cats is rare, but dogs are susceptible, especially if they roam in rural areas and are frequently exposed to wildlife. Lepto infections are most common in the fall in warm areas with high annual rainfall. The bacteria can get into water and soil and remain there for years.

Lepto infection is spread through infected animals’ urine. Dogs can become infected by coming in contact with infected urine or contaminated soil or water, when the bacteria enters through their skin and mucous membranes. Most dogs are infected when they drink or swim in the contaminated water. 

Those at highest risk include hunting or sporting dogs, dogs who live close to wooded areas or on a farm, and dogs who spend time in kennels.

What are lepto signs in dogs?

Some dogs who are infected never show signs, while others become extremely ill and die. Leptospirosis causes kidney injury with possible concurrent liver injury. Signs typically include:

  • Lethargy
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Muscle pain
  • Yellowing of skin and mucous membranes
  • Inability to have puppies

Leptospirosis spreads through your dog’s entire body, replicating in the kidney, liver, central nervous system, reproductive system, and the eyes. The extent of disease in your dog depends on their immune system’s ability to eliminate the bacteria. Young dogs whose immune system is not fully developed are most at risk of developing severe complications. Dogs who do not show signs can still spread the disease through infected urine. Typically, signs occur 5 to 14 days after exposure.

How is lepto diagnosed in dogs?

Your dog’s history, in conjunction with their signs, will indicate to your veterinarian that leptospirosis is a suspect, and testing their blood and urine for the bacteria’s  presence will confirm the diagnosis. Other blood tests, X-rays, and ultrasound may be needed to determine how seriously your dog is affected by the disease. 

How is lepto treated in dogs?

Treatment usually requires hospitalization and involves supportive therapy using intravenous fluids to correct dehydration caused by vomiting and diarrhea. If your dog’s vomiting is severe, they may require an anti-emetic to prevent vomiting and a nasogastric tube placed to provide nourishment while they recover. Antibiotics will be prescribed and usually are needed for at least four weeks. If aggressive treatment is started promptly, prognosis is good, but permanent kidney or liver damage is possible. Any other household dogs should be treated prophylactically with antibiotics for two weeks.

If my dog has lepto, is my family at risk?

Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease, which means your dog can infect your family; children are most at risk. The risk decreases after your dog has been on antibiotics for 72 hours, but you should still take precautions, and avoid handling your dog’s urine. If they urinate or vomit in your home, wear gloves and clean the area with an iodine-based disinfectant or a bleach solution. Do not allow your dog to urinate in standing water or areas accessible to people or other animals. Always wash your hands after handling your pet. Ask your physician if your family should be tested for lepto. 

How can I prevent lepto from affecting my dog?

Lepto vaccines are available, and while not 100% effective, they are useful in disease prevention. If your dog is at high risk, talk to our team at Kennedy Heights Animal and Bird Hospital to see if they are a candidate for the lepto vaccine, which should be administered yearly to provide protection.

If you are boarding your pet, inspect their kennel for cleanliness. Rodents can spread the disease, so check for rodent droppings around the facility. 

While hiking, prevent your dog from drinking from standing water. Steer them toward clean, running water, or take bottled water and a water bowl, and offer them frequent drinks so they will not need water from natural sources.

Now that you have this information about lepto, you can keep your dog protected while hiking in rural settings. If your dog does show leptospirosis signs, or you would like to discuss vaccinating your dog, contact Kennedy Heights Animal and Bird Hospital.