What is it?
Leptospirosis is an infection caused by multiple subspecies of the spirochete bacteria Leptospira. These bacteria can be found worldwide. Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease, which means it can be passed between animals and humans. Leptospirosis in cats is rare and appears to be mild although very little is known about the disease in this species.
The Leptspira bacteria are transmitted through infected bodily fluids including urine, semen, post-abortion discharge, and vomit. The bacteria can remain in contaminated soil, water, food, or bedding. The infected fluid comes in contact with the not yet infected individual’s mucous membranes. It can be spread through a bite from an infected animal, by eating infected tissues or carcasses, and rarely through breeding. It can also be passed through the placenta from mother to young. Once infected, the bacteria travel through the bloodstream and reproduce in the liver, kidneys, central nervous system, eyes, and reproductive system.
Dogs will typically come into contact with the Leptospira bacteria in infected water, soil, or mud, while swimming, passing through, or drinking contaminated water, or from coming into contact with urine from an infected animal. Previously, infections were commonly seen in farm dogs that were in contact with livestock or hunting dogs in the fall. With the rise of urban sprawl, the instance of disease in city dogs has been increasing. Studies have shown that approximately 90% of urban rats are carriers of the Leptospira bacteria. Other common carriers include raccoons and skunks, which frequently reside in urban areas. Once infected with the disease, wild animals serve as reservoirs for months to years.
Signs may vary depending on the patient and the severity of infection. Some infected dogs may not show symptoms, some may have a mild illness and recover on their own, while others develop severe illness. Some common symptoms include:
- Stiff & Sore
- Lack of appetite
- Increased thirst and urination
- Inability to urinate
- Vomiting- possibly with blood
- Diarrhea- with or without blood in stool
- Bloody vaginal discharge
- Petechiae- dark, red spots on gums
- Jaundice- Yellow skin and/or whites of eyes
- Difficulty breathing, fast breathing, irregular pulse
- Nasal discharge or nose bleeds
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Kidney and/or Liver failure
There are a few different factors leading to a diagnosis. The veterinary team will ask questions regarding your pet’s medical history, environment, and recent exposure risk. A complete physical exam is performed to check for signs and symptoms. Urinalysis and blood work can detect the presence of the bacteria or antibodies, as well as check for damage to internal organs.
Since Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection, antibiotics are a main part of the treatment plan. Depending on the severity of infection, and resulting damage, other supportive measures may be needed. Hospitalization may be required for supportive care including fluids, administering medications, and in severe cases a blood transfusion or dialysis.
Caution is required to avoid spread of the disease to other patients and caretakers of the infected patient. The patient should be isolated from other pets and humans. Since the bacteria are passed in bodily fluids, gloves and other protective gear should be worn during handling of the patient and their excretions. Even after symptoms resolve, the bacteria can be shed for many weeks. Therefore, caution should also be taken at home after the patient is discharged from veterinary care. A bleach solution should be used to disinfect areas where the pet urinates, vomits, etc.
There are vaccines available that cover up to five different strains of Leptospirosis. Previously, Lepto was not part of the vaccine protocol at Bemidji Veterinary Hospital because it was believed that certain ingredients in the vaccine were causing reactions. Also, the prevalence of the disease was thought to be minimal in our area. After changes were made to the vaccine and studies began to show an increase in disease incidence, our veterinarians feel it is beneficial to vaccinate for Lepto. This vaccine should be started after 12 weeks of age. As always, we base our vaccine recommendations on the specific pet and its lifestyle.
Tips to reduce the spread of Leptospirosis:
- Discourage pets from contact with wild animals, rodents, etc.
- Avoid leaving garbage, pet food, etc. out to attract wildlife to your yard.
- Control rodent populations in areas your dog frequents.
- Don’t let pets drink from puddles, lakes, streams, etc.
- Wear gloves when cleaning up bodily fluids.
- Don’t let dogs urinate near water.
- Empty and clean bird baths frequently.
People more commonly contract Leptospirosis during water recreation (swimming, boating, etc). In humans, symptoms appear flu-like. Though passing Leptospirosis from pet to owner is rare, it is possible. If you suspect your pet may be ill, we recommend seeing your veterinarian. Early detection leads to a better outcome for your pet, and also less of a chance of transmission to you. Avoid contact with urine of pets and wild animals. Wear gloves when handling bodily fluids.