Leptospirosis in Dogs


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Since ancient times, dogs have been contracting all sorts of illnesses from drinking water, eating dead things, and just, in general, being dogs. One of those is canine leptospirosis or “lepto” to the veterinary community. Lepto is a bacterium that has been around for millennia, although our means of diagnosing the illness that it causes are relatively new. This bacterium can cause anything from no symptoms at all, to issues with blood properly clotting or kidney disease. The good news is that it’s treatable, but for many pet owners, the symptoms of lepto can be pretty scary. In this article, we will cover everything you need to know about lepto, including:

  • Causes of leptospirosis in dogs
  • Symptoms of leptospirosis in dogs
  • Leptospirosis diagnosis procedures.
  • Leptospirosis treatment for dogs
  • How to prevent leptospirosis

By the end of this guide, you will have a thorough understanding of how lepto may affect your dog and what you can do to either treat the illness lepto causes or prevent your dog from contracting lepto.

What is Canine Leptospirosis?

Before we dive into what you need to know about what causes lepto, let’s define what this is. Canine leptospirosis is an infection that is caused by the Leptospira bacteria. There are four different species of this bacteria that affect wild animals, and the bacteria can also affect humans in certain circumstances. The bacterial infection causes a variety of symptoms that all indicate that your dog’s immune system is under attack. Just like other infections, lepto can attack many different bodily systems by weakening the immune systems and making it easier for dogs to get sick from other bacteria or viruses.

Causes of Leptospirosis in Dogs

The lepto bacteria can be transferred to other animals, including humans, but it is most prevalent in dogs and wild animals. The most common ways that a dog gets the lepto virus is by drinking contaminated water where a wild animal has urinated, being exposed to fecal matter left behind by an infected dog or animal, or coming into contact with a rodent or another dog that has lepto. If an open wound, or the eyes, nose, or mouth, come into contact with any of the following things, the lepto bacteria can be contracted:

  • Urine or fecal matter from an infected animal
  • Water that has been infected
  • Food that an infected animal has eaten and left traces of saliva on
  • Saliva through a bite
  • Infected tissue, such as a dog eating a dead rodent
  • Soil that has been contaminated by bodily fluids of an infected animal

Additionally, the lepto bacteria can be transferred to puppies if the mother dog has the bacteria when she is pregnant.

Once a dog comes into contact with any of those things, they could be carriers of the bacteria for years, spreading it anytime they urinate or drink, for example. The lepto bacteria can live outside a host for months, making it hard to predict when an environment might be safe for your dog to explore.

Symptoms of Leptospirosis in Dogs

There is a huge range of symptoms that could be related to having the lepto virus. Some of those may include:

  • No symptoms of illness at all
  • Having frequent bouts of mild illness that go away quickly
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Weakness
  • Depression
  • Tenderness
  • Shivering or shaking
  • Urinating either a lot more or a lot less than usual
  • Being very thirsty
  • Being dehydrated
  • Diarrhea or vomiting
  • Not wanting to eat
  • Inflamed, red eyes (a condition called dyspnea)
  • Jaundice
  • Kidney disease or kidney failure
  • Liver disease
  • Lung disease and trouble with breathing
  • Nosebleeds
  • Bleeding disorders such as problems with clotting
  • Swollen limbs
  • Fluid pockets on the chest or stomach
  • Bloody vomit, feces, saliva, urine, or bloody spots on the gums

As you can see, some of these symptoms are completely mild and may go unnoticed, while others can be deadly. The lepto bacteria has been shown to cause unpredictable kidney or liver failure out of the blue, but may also be totally dormant forever.

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Leptospirosis Diagnosis Procedures

Although this bacterium has been around since the dawn of time, we have only recently developed surefire ways to diagnose Leptospirosis. If you suspect that your dog is showing signs of lepto, here’s how the vet visit might go:

First, your veterinarian will ask if your dog has had a lepto vaccination. Then they will ask how the dog came into contact with the virus – did she recently go swimming? Did you catch him eating a dead animal? And so on. Then the vet will examine your dog’s symptoms to make their initial educated estimate about whether or not your dog has lepto. This examination will include going through all your dog’s recent activities as well as complete health history, so be sure you are ready for some questions. The vet needs to know if these symptoms could be related to anything else, for one very important reason.

There are several special blood tests and urine tests that can be used to detect the antibodies that indicate the presence of the lepto virus. These tests can tell you and the vet for sure if your dog has lepto. However, while those tests are in a lab being performed, your vet is likely to go ahead and start treatment if your dog is showing symptoms of lepto. The faster treatment starts, the less likely it is that your dog could pass the lepto bacteria on to other animals or even to you. This is the reason why it is so important that your vet make an educated diagnosis with your dog’s health history and activity history during the exam.

Leptospirosis Treatment for Dogs

Luckily, we do have ways to treat lepto if a dog contracts the bacteria. We have antibiotics that can fight the bacteria off – however, as with all infections, the treatment is much more effective if it started earlier rather than later. If a dog has just started to show symptoms of lepto, the antibiotics may be all that is necessary to cure them.

However, if the bacteria spread before symptoms started to show, or treatment was delayed, your dog may need other types of care to ensure that their organs don’t fail before the treatment can work. This may mean hospitalization is necessary to give your dog fluids to keep their kidneys healthy until the bacteria is gone.

Other symptoms like fever and vomiting will be treated as well so that your dog can be comfortable and keep down the antibiotics. If your dog does not need to be hospitalized, you’ll be administering the antibiotics at home. During this time, it is important that you don’t come into contact with your dog’s urine or feces because you can contract the bacteria as well. If your dog has an accident inside, clean it up immediately to avoid spreading the bacteria, and always wash your hands after you pet or play with your dog Don’t let your dog lick anyone, especially near the face, until they have gone through the full round of antibiotics.

As long as lepto is treated fairly early with aggressive antibiotics, most dogs will recover and go on to live healthily. However, any dog that has had lepto has a risk of permanent liver damage or kidney damage in the future. This will be something that you will need to watch for if your dog has lepto. If you ever see bloody urine or stool in the future, you should go to the vet right away and explain your dog’s history with lepto. This will help the vet know what type of treatment is right for your dog.

In puppies, lepto is typically treated through the mother. The mother is given the antibiotics, and the puppies get the antibiotics through their mother’s milk. Antibiotics are not designed for very young puppies, so this is the best way to treat them to ensure that they get over the bacteria as quickly as possible.

How to Prevent Leptospirosis

The best thing you can do for a dog to prevent lepto is to get them vaccinated against the bacteria during their yearly checkup. There is a lepto vaccine that works for one year, and it helps to reduce the risk that the bacteria will be able to grow and spread in a dog’s system. The vaccine is not 100% fool-proof, but it can help, especially if your dog goes hunting or hiking with you, and is frequently exposed to stagnant water sources and wild animals.

Additionally, it can help if you are able to prevent your dog from drinking water from lakes or streams outdoors, from coming into contact with wild animals, or from sniffing around fecal matter or areas where other dogs urinate. Keeping your dog from doing any of these things can be difficult, especially when you don’t really know if that tree your dog is sniffing has been urinated on, or just has an interesting smell. That is why the best thing to do is to ensure that your dog has the vaccine.

Be sure to always head to the vet right away if your dog frequently drinks outdoors or sniffs around areas where wild animals may have been, and begins showing any of the signs of lepto. The sooner you can get the treatment started, the better the outlook for your dog. Lepto is serious enough to take advantage of emergency vet hours if your vet offers them, or to seek out an emergency clinic for your dog.

Warning for People

Lepto can be transferred to people through bodily fluids such as urine, saliva, and blood. If your dog has lepto and has an accident, be sure to wear gloves when you are cleaning it up. Contracting the bacteria yourself can lead to similarly severe symptoms. There are antibiotics that you can take to get lepto out of your system, but in the meantime, you could suffer from many of the same issues, like nausea, bloody urine, depression, muscle weakness, and even organ failure.

If you think you’ve come into contact with bodily fluids from an infected animal, be sure to head to your doctor right away to get treatment started. Just as with dogs, the sooner you get your treatment started, the better the outcome will be.

To Sum It Up

The most important takeaways from this guide to Leptospirosis in dogs are:

  • Lepto is a bacterial infection that dogs are prone to.
  • Dogs can get this bacterial infection by drinking water in the wild, coming into contact with wild animals, or sniffing around places where animals and other dogs have urinated.
  • Lepto can cause anything from a mild fever to organ failure, so it is best to take it seriously.
  • Getting the antibiotics to treat lepto is best if you do it as soon as possible.
  • Even after getting the treatment to cure lepto, a dog is at an increased risk for organ failure for the rest of their life after having lepto.
  • The best way to avoid this fate is to protect your dog with a yearly lepto vaccination.
  • You can also help prevent your dog from getting lepto by not letting them drink from stagnant water outdoors, and keeping them away from wild animals and urine or feces from other animals.

The Final Word

These seven highlights give you a great overview of what you need to know. If your dog has potentially contracted lepto, you do have hope that they will continue to live totally normally for the rest of their life. Just be sure to get to the vet as soon as you can and take note of what it was that might have exposed them to the bacteria so you can avoid it in the future.

Or, even better, have your healthy dog vaccinated against this bacterium today to avoid the illness altogether. And be sure to keep your dog away from stagnant water and wild animals when hunting, hiking, or just exploring.

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