Downeast Dog News

Ask the Vet - Leptospirosis

By Dr. Judith Herman | Jun 01, 2017

Q. I went to the veterinarian today for my dog’s annual check up. They wanted him to have a Lepto shot. What is that? Does Buster need it?

A. Leptospirosis is a contagious disease that is acquired by exposure to contaminated urine. Historically, we saw it in farm dogs and animals. It is called a zoonotic disease because many species including humans can get it.

Leptospirosis is a bacteria called a spirochete. There are thousands of types of leptospira called serovars, but only a small number cause disease in our area. The bacteria are spread by rodents, like rats, raccoons, skunks, dogs, and cattle. If an animal is infected or is a carrier, meaning they have the bacteria but aren’t sick, the bacteria is passed in the urine. Some animals, like rats, urinate in wet areas such as stagnant or slow moving water. If it is really rainy and wet, the bacteria can live in the rain puddles.

Because wild animals are now adjusting to urban areas, small dogs, less than 15 pounds, and apartment dogs are having a higher incidence of the disease than before. We know that 8 to 20% of infected animals are chronic healthy carriers. Male dogs are more likely to get leptospirosis than female dogs. Outbreaks of the disease are seen after rain storms and in late fall.

The good news is the bacteria likes warm and wet environments. Heat (greater than 86 degrees) and dryness will kill the bacteria. Also, normal disinfectants will easily kill the leptospirosis bacteria.

If exposed to the bacteria, the incubation period can take a week. This is dependent on the amount of bacteria your dog ingested, the strain of the bacteria, where you live, and the strength of your dog’s immune system.

Leptospirosis is mostly an acute kidney disease but can involve the liver too. 90% of the cases seen are acute renal disease which is treatable and has a fair to good prognosis if treated immediately.

The symptoms you look for are lethargy, inappetence, dehydration, painful abdomen, excessive drinking and urinating. If the liver is involved, then your dog’s gums and whites of his eyes look yellowish. More symptoms can be present which are quite serious and life threatening. These symptoms can include fever, inflammation in the eyes, difficulty breathing, and bleeding from the body’s openings.

If you see an increase in drinking and urinating, take your dog to your veterinarian immediately. There are several diseases that can cause these symptoms, but all these diseases need to be addressed as soon as possible.

There are tests that can be done to diagnose Leptospirosis. Some require blood and others urine. These samples need to be collected before treatment is started. Great care is taken in handling the samples and your dog because of how contagious this disease is. In the past, we would send the samples to a lab for a diagnosis, which is still done today, but we also have the advantage of doing a test in the veterinary hospital to confirm if Buster has this disease.

If your dog is showing symptoms of Leptospirosis, your veterinarian will do some tests to assess the status of Buster and place an intravenous catheter. Once the samples are collected, fluids and antibiotics will be started. The fluids are really important and need to continue for at least 3 days while the antibiotics get a chance to work.

By catching the infection early, there is a good chance for kidney values to return to normal in a short time.

Passing leptospirosis from dog to human is rare. You and your dog play in the same areas. If you are in the same water or handling the same soil as Buster, your risk goes up. If your dog is diagnosed with Leptospirosis and you develop flu-like symptoms, go to your doctor and let her know that you have been exposed to this disease.

How do you prevent your dog from getting Leptospirosis? One is avoid standing water if possible. There are vaccines available. The vaccination with four types of leptospirosis is recommended. There are initially two vaccinations two weeks apart followed by a yearly vaccination. Some of these vaccinations can cause serious side effects. I recommend staying in the waiting room for at least 15 minutes in case there is a reaction. These vaccinations are not 100% effective because of the many different kinds of the bacteria in the environment. Some of these vaccines do not last a full year. It is also important to give the Lepto vaccination separate from Lyme and Rabies. When these vaccines are given together, the chances of an adverse reaction goes way up.

Besides vaccinating, it is very important to strengthen your dog’s immune system. The stronger Buster is the less likely he will get sick. You do this by feeding a great diet, probiotics, and digestive enzymes.

A homeopathic nosode for leptospirosis is another way to prevent the disease. This is experimental, and it is not a vaccine. This is the prevention of choice in Cuba, which sees a leptospirosis epidemic every year during hurricane season. This is a prescription medicine which can only be dispensed by a homeopath.

Leptospirosis has been around forever. Being aware of the disease in your area will guide you on what to do next.


Judith K. Herman DVM, CVH

Animal Wellness Center

Augusta, ME