Leptospirosis and Pets

Leptospirosis and Pets

Deadly Bacterial Disease Making a Comeback

Leptospirosis—commonly referred to as “lepto” by veterinarians, is a flu-like disease that affects pets, particularly dogs. If not treated in time, the disease can become deadly.

While at one point in time considered less of a threat to pets, recent outbreaks of lepto have been reported in the United States.

Bacteriologists in the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine's Diagnostic Laboratory are urging dog owners to watch for symptoms of the disease.

What is Leptospirosis?

Lepto is a spiral-shaped bacterium that spreads through contact with an infected wild or domestic animal’s urine. This serious bacterial disease contains several different strains or sub-types of leptospira that are capable of affecting pets and other mammals. Mice, rats, raccoons and opossums are commonly implicated in spreading the disease.

Typically, lepto bacteria are found in contaminated soil and stagnant water where they can survive for weeks to months at a time. Your dog or cat may come into contact with the contaminated urine in wooded areas, standing water, or ponds. The lepto bacteria enters your pet’s body through the eyes, nose or mouth; areas of broken, cut or scratched skin are also particularly susceptible.

Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease and can, therefore, be transmitted directly and indirectly to all mammals, including humans. Strict hygienic measures and personal protective equipment should be utilized while treating pets with this disease.

Leptospirosis Symptoms

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms of lepto vary according to the organs affected by the disease and can be nonspecific. Acute kidney failure is common in dogs with lepto. Hepatitis and bleeding disorders may also be caused by leptospirosis.

Common clinical signs include:

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  • Fever;
  • Vomiting;
  • Abdominal pain;
  • Diarrhea;
  • Lack of appetite;
  • Severe weakness and/or muscle pain;
  • Excessive water consumption or refusal to drink;
  • Jaundice (yellow cast to the eyes, inside of mouth or skin);
  • Depression; and
  • Stiffness.

It can take four to 12 days for lepto symptoms to occur. Once in the bloodstream, the bacteria can quickly spread to your pet’s liver, spleen, and kidneys.

If not treated in time, pets have an increased risk of dying due to kidney failure or other complications.

Diagnosing and Treating Leptospirosis

If you suspect your dog or cat is showing symptoms of lepto, contact your veterinarian immediately. A test will be performed to detect the presence of leptospiral antibodies or organisms in your pet.

Immediate treatment with antibiotics and supportive fluid therapy may save your pet's life and prevent chronic kidney disease or other complications.

Generally, younger pets are more seriously affected than older animals, but the earlier lepto is detected and treated, the better chances of recovery your pet has.

A Shot of Prevention Can Help Protect Pets

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Vaccination can help protect your pet against leptospirosis, but the vaccine is not effective against all strains of leptospira bacteria.

"I'd recommend the lepto vaccine to owners who are traveling with their pets to a high-risk area—such as camping or hiking near heavily wooded areas or ponds, or live on or near a dairy farm," says Dr. Linda Lee at Yorba Regional Animal Hospital in Orange County, Calif. "Dogs who run amongst cow patches or have direct contact with cows may be more susceptible to the lepto bacteria as well." She advises concerned pet owners to discuss their pet's vaccination schedule with their veterinarians. "All vaccines, including the lepto vaccine, can cause a reaction in pets, such as facial swelling, vomiting and diarrhea. Become educated on the vaccine so you can make a decision that's right for you and your pet."

Other ways to protect your pet: keep rodent problems under control; rodents can carry and spread the bacteria. Also, before taking your dog for a walk on a nature trail, check his paws, belly and other exposed areas for any abrasions, scratches or open wounds. If you spot any, consider putting the walk on hold until your pet has healed. In addition, do not let your pet drink from ponds or stagnant pools of water while on your nature walk.

Consult your veterinarian for more information on leptospirosis and whether or not your dog or cat would benefit from the vaccine.