As the weather warms, and we are outdoors more, it’s time to get serious about leptospirosis. If you’re a dog owner, you’ve likely heard of this disease, commonly known as “lepto.” Perhaps you remember your Westerville Veterinary Clinic veterinarian explaining the disease, or maybe your furry friend already receives the lepto vaccine each year. But, do you know what leptospirosis is, or how it is spread?

Leptospirosis is an infectious disease caused by a bacterial organism, Leptospira, named for its spiral-like shape. Animals are typically infected with Leptospira through direct contact with an infected animal, or a contaminated water source such as a pond, creek, or lake. Contact with infected urine is a primary infection source, although animals can pick up the bacteria in the soil, from an animal bite, or, rarely, through breeding, or in utero. Once an animal is infected with Leptospira, the bacteria move through the blood and into the tissues, causing damage along the way. Many pets will clear a mild infection, but others can become quite sick. 

Some pets are more at risk for leptospirosis

Because of the way leptospirosis spreads, pets who spend significant amounts of time outdoors, or around other animals, are more likely to contract the disease. In domestic pets, dogs are much more likely to develop leptospirosis than cats, who are not immune, but little is currently known about the disease in cats. Wild animals, such as rats, skunks, deer, and raccoons, may also harbor the bacteria, and transmit it to other wildlife or domestic animals. Since Leptospira thrives in warm, moist environments, dogs who live in mild climates, and who frequent bodies of water, such as lakes, streams, or rivers, may be more at risk for infection.

Leptospirosis signs in pets can vary

Like many infectious diseases, the clinical signs and severity of leptospirosis can vary wildly. While some affected pets may not show any abnormalities, others become severely ill, and others may die. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common leptospirosis signs in dogs are non-specific, and include fever, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, anorexia, weakness, stiffness, and muscle pain. The disease can wreak havoc on the liver and kidneys, so signs like jaundice (i.e., yellow discoloration of the eyes, skin, or mucous membranes), or increased drinking and urination can also occur. Since lepto can affect many different body systems, some pets may exhibit respiratory signs, bleeding problems, or fluid accumulation. A diagnostic workup is essential for diagnosing and treating your pet, and our veterinary team may recommend baseline blood work, X-rays, leptospirosis-specific testing, and hospitalization. Time is of the essence with leptospirosis, so do not delay in seeking veterinary attention if your pet is ill. 

Leptospirosis is zoonotic

One especially important quality of this bacteria is its ability to infect humans. Leptospirosis is not commonly transmitted from pets to people, but does occur, and any lepto-infected pet requires special handling. If you suspect your pet has leptospirosis, refrain from handling any of their bodily fluids, including urine, vomit, or blood, and contact our veterinary team immediately. If you live in a rural area, or near a large wildlife population, you and your pet may have a higher risk of contracting the disease. For more information regarding leptospirosis infections in people, consult the CDC guidelines here

Leptospirosis is preventable in pets

Fortunately for our active, outdoor dogs, an effective and safe vaccine is available. If your canine companion is not already protected against leptospirosis, your Westerville veterinarian will help you decide if vaccination is the right choice, based on your pet’s lifestyle. Currently, an approved one-year leptospirosis vaccine exists for dogs, but not for cats, or humans. Keep in mind that while the current leptospirosis immunizations are effective, no vaccine guarantees your pet’s protection. Therefore, instilling additional safety measures, such as controlling rodent populations and limiting your pet’s unsupervised access to wild areas, can help further protect you and your pet. 

If you’re planning to enjoy the great outdoors with your canine companions this summer, ensure they are up to date on their leptospirosis vaccinations. If your pet has never been vaccinated for leptospirosis, an additional booster vaccine will be required three to four weeks after the initial vaccination. Contact us to set up an appointment, and rest easy that your pets will be protected from this preventable disease.