Leptospirosis, or lepto as it is often called, is a world-wide problem. Luckily, in the UK, we can vaccinate against it.
It is a bacterial infection that is spread in urine
It can affect pets, wildlife, farm animals and humans
Watercourses, farms, exposure to wild animals, and contact with other dog urine are all risk factors
It is a serious disease, that can lead to death
It can be hard to diagnose and treat
If you are concerned your dog may have leptospirosis, speak to your vet right away
What is leptospirosis?
Leptospirosis is a disease caused by a bacteria called leptospira.
These bacteria can be found worldwide, but are more widespread in warm, rainy areas..
It can affect wild animals, domestic animals (including dogs) and also humans. In humans, it is commonly known as Weil’s disease.
When an animal is infected, the bacteria can affect many organs and cause severe disease that is often fatal.
How can a dog get infected?
Leptospira are spread in the urine of an affected animal, and can enter the body through the nose, mouth, eyelids or via a wound.
Dogs (and people) can become infected by contact with infected urine or blood, or contaminated water, or soil. Rarely, it can be transmitted through a bite from an infected animal, or through the placenta from an infected bitch to the puppies.
Dogs are more at risk of leptospirosis if they:
drink or swim in rivers, lakes, ponds and streams
live on a farm
are exposed to wild animals including rodents
are in contact with other dogs
Because leptospirosis is such a widespread disease, even dogs that rarely leave their garden are still at risk.
What are the signs of leptospirosis?
Signs of leptospirosis can vary from absent to very severe, depending on the type of leptospira bacteria, how old the dog is, and how well their immune system is working. Symptoms are quite non-specific, and usually appear a few days after the infection. If left untreated, they can escalate quickly and can even lead to the death of the patient.
They can include:
muscle aches and reluctance to move
excessive thirst and weeing
reduced appetite, vomiting and diarrhoea
jaundice (yellow tinge of the mucous membranes)
How is leptospirosis diagnosed?
It can be difficult to get a definite diagnosis of leptospirosis.
Sometimes leptospirosis is suspected based on the symptoms and history, but because many of the symptoms are common in other diseases several tests might be needed to rule diseases in or out.
Your vet will probably take blood and urine samples: many pets infected with leptospira will show signs of acute kidney and liver injury.
If these tests confirm the suspicion of leptospirosis, further blood and urine testing is carried out to identify antibodies and/or the bacteria itself.
How is leptospirosis treated?
Affected animals are treated with antibiotics, and intensive supportive treatment such as intravenous fluids (a drip) and other medications.
They often need to stay and be hospitalised, and special precautions will be taken to prevent spreading of the disease to other pets or humans.
What is the outlook for dogs with leptospirosis?
Leptospirosis is a serious disease, and some dogs get very poorly very quickly and may unfortunately die. Sometimes they continue to deteriorate despite treatment, and euthanasia may be kindest. Dogs with mild symptoms that are seen by the vet early on in the disease have the best chance of recovery. But even if they do recover, they can continue to shed the bacteria in their urine for several months, which risks infecting other animals and humans.
Can we prevent leptospirosis?
Luckily, there are several vaccines available against leptospira.
You might have heard about the “Lepto2” and “Lepto4” vaccines: the latter offer protections against more types of Leptospira. The vaccine reduces the risk of severe disease, and death. Studies have shown that in most dogs immunity lasts around 1 year, so annual booster vaccinatations are required. Measuring the antibody levels (“titre testing”) is not currently recommended for leptospira, because high levels of antibodies are usually only seen when an animal is exposed to the bacteria.
You can also help to reduce your dog’s risk by trying not to let them swim in rivers, lakes, ponds and streams, by trying to prevent rodent problems in and around your house, and by trying to stop them hunting wildlife.
If you’re worried that your dog may have leptospirosis, or you have any questions about the disease and vaccinating against it, please talk to your vet. The team at MyDogDoc are always happy to help too!