Leptospirosis is a disease caused by Leptospira bacteria.
These bacteria are known to exist in nature, and over two hundred different varieties have been identified. Fortunately, only a small handful cause the range of symptoms we call Leptospirosis (or “lepto” for short). The two most common bacteria responsible are Leptospira icterohaemorrhagiae and Leptospira canicola.
What Species Does Leptospirosis Affect?
Leptospira is a surprisingly diverse bacteria, capable of infecting many mammals. In terms of domestic pets dogs are far more likely to be infected than cats, though both have been known to contract it on occasion.
The problem is worsened by the range of wild mammals which can become infected, and hence spread the disease. This is even more unfortunate when you realize that not all infected animals will display symptoms; some may simply carry it for long periods of time, infected other wild animals and pets along the way.
In the UK both rats and foxes are considered the most common vectors, while in North America it is believed that skunks and raccoons have plenty to answer for.
Leptospirosis is known as a “zoonotic” disease in that it can easily jump from one species to another.
Can Humans Catch Leptospirosis?
Humans can indeed be infected with leptospirosis, though this is far from common. For this reason, however, it is important to take great precautions if you believe your pet to be infected.
How Do Dogs Catch Leptospirosis?
The bacteria which causes the disease is generally transmitted in the urine. Thus, if your dog happens to gnaw on something that an infected animal has urinated on, it could become infected. A rather more common cause of infection comes through swimming in infected water, while bites from infected animals can also transmit the disease.
As a result of this, and improvements in vaccines, it is more likely that domestic pets spending large amounts of time in the countryside will be affected.
What are the Symptoms of Leptospirosis?
Unlike many other canine diseases like kennel cough the symptoms of infection can be highly variable. Examples of common symptoms can include lethargy, jaundice, severe thirst, raised temperatures, vomiting and/or diarrhoea.
Possibly the most characteristic symptom of Leptospirosis is how quickly the disease develops. First signs of infection occur within a few days of exposure, and can progress rapidly in a matter of hours.
Severe cases can lead to organ failure or even death, so if you are at all concerned about your dog you should seek veterinary assistance immediately.
How is Leptospirosis Diagnosed?
Due to the range of potential symptoms, Leptospirosis is not always easy to diagnose. In addition, dogs which have been vaccinated against the disease may not show any antigen-related response.
Generally speaking vets will take samples, and ask about your dog’s lifestyle. If you dog regularly swims in ponds and pools where wild animals roam, this too may be an important indication.
In most cases, if there is a chance of Leptospirosis infection a vet will treat for it just to be safe.
How is Leptospirosis in Dogs Treated?
As a basic measure, most suspected cases will require high doses of antibiotics to help stem the infection. Due to the rapid onset, and frequent severity, of the symptoms, it is often necessary to provide intensive care. Here intravenous fluids may well be given, together with painkillers until the disease subsides.
What Should I Do If I Suspect an Infection?
If you think that your dog could be infected then there are two essential precautions that should be taken. Firstly, you should contact your vet as soon as possible to seek immediate medical help. Due to the infectious nature of this disease great care should be taken when transporting your dog where other pets may be found.
Secondly, you should be aware of the zoonotic nature of the disease, and take suitable precautions. Do not allow your dog to interact with other pets or people, wear gloves and treat all surfaces with bleach or other antibacterial liquids in order to eliminate any bacteria in your home. Seek professional advice from your vet and/or doctor to be certain that you are protecting your family.
Can Leptospirosis Be Vaccinated Against?
Leptospirosis can be vaccinated against, but veterinary professionals disagree over the importance of protection. Fortunately, the disease is quite rare in many developed countries, so many vets suggest that vaccination is unnecessary.
The best solution is to ask your vet, and seek their professional opinion, as they will be able to tell you whether they think such a precaution is warranted.
Note that some countries require vaccinations for Leptospirosis before entry will be granted.