Leptospirosis In Dogs

Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection that if contracted in susceptible puppies can lead to major organ failure and fatality. The good news is it is also a disease that is fairly easy to guard against and because of this, is less common than a few years ago.

How does my dog get leptospirosis?

Although the bacteria leptospira has a known 230 strains worldwide, roughly only 8 actually affect dogs and cats and of those, there are two that are common in the UK.

  • Leptospira icterohaemorrhagiae
  • Leptospira canicola

The bacteria are shed from infected animals in their urine. Dogs and puppies can come into contact with the bacteria by sniffing around or walking through areas where infected animals have urinated. Predominantly in the UK most of the infection is borne from rats or foxes urine. There is also a very small chance a dog could pick up and eat an object that an infected animal has urinated on, or the leptospira bacteria could enter through an open wound.

What are the signs of the leptospirosis in my dog?

There are quite a few symptoms associated with leptospirosis and your dog or puppy may not show all of them. The main signs are:

  • Jaundice - because the liver becomes enlarged and damaged, yellowing of the skin and eyes can occur. In severe cases dogs gums can take on a yellow tinge and the whites of their eyes can also be affected in this way.
  • Raised temperature - due to the body trying to fight off the infection.
  • Increased thirst - the body will try and flush the toxins from its organs, therefore the dogs thirst may increase.
  • Lethargy - leptospirosis is debilitating and it might drain energy from your dog or puppy. You may find your dog sleeping unusually long, both day and night.
  • Abdominal pain - because of the infection damaging the organs located in the abdomen, dogs and puppies often show signs of abdominal discomfort, restlessness, vocalisation or arching of the back, trying to get comfortable.
  • Vomiting - because the animal will feel so poorly and the body is trying to rid toxins anyway it can, infected animals will commonly vomit. In some cases the vomit will be bile yellow.
  • Bloody diarrhoea (haemorrhagic gastric enteritis) - as the body breaks down toxins, in some cases it can cause bloody diarrhoea as waste is shed from the body.

Those animals that are infected to a lesser degree can recover fully, however some can develop long-term infections and carry a risk of contaminating other animals. Sadly in severe cases, death of the animal can occur within hours of the symptoms becoming apparent, puppies are more susceptible than adult dogs.

How does the vet diagnose leptospirosis?

All veterinary surgeons will take a full history and might ask where the dog has been walked etc. They will give a physical examination to the animal and to diagnose leptospirosis they will normally take a blood sample. Once the sample has been run in the laboratory, (many veterinary centres can do this on site), the veterinary surgeon will be looking for a change in the white blood cell count. Early on in the infection this cell count can be low, while in the latter stages it will be significantly raised. The other parameters the vets look for are raised enzymes for the liver and kidney and changes to blood clotting factors. If there are changes as described above they can indicate other problems, not related to leptospirosis. In this case the vet may place the dog on large amounts of antibiotics while a blood enzyme test is carried out. This test is extremely sensitive to the leptospira bacteria. Most vets will also obtain a sample of urine (which will normally be very yellow) and have that tested in the laboratory as well, to assist in the diagnosis.

How will the vet treat leptospirosis?

In most cases intensive nursing and support will be needed in the early stages and commonly treatment will consist of fluid therapy (placing the dog on a drip), to flush out toxins from the kidneys. Antibiotics such as penicillin which the bacteria are not resistant to, will be administered as well. In cases where the dog is severely vomiting drugs can be given to reduce this.

How can I prevent my dog or puppy getting leptospirosis?

The only proven way to prevent your dog from contracting leptospirosis is by vaccination. In the UK the vaccine is given every year as a booster (after the primary course) and it is being constantly developed. Like the human influenza infection, leptospira bacteria can change yearly, which is why annual vaccination boosters are so important, (and why humans have yearly flu jabs!) Keeping your dog or puppy away from areas such as waterways, drains and other sources of possible contamination is also sensible. If you have an infected dog, keep all healthy dogs away from them.

Is there anything else I should know about leptospirosis?

Very importantly leptospirosis is what is called a zoonotic disease. This means the infection can be passed from animal to human (and vice versa). If you come into contact with an infected animal, good personal hygiene with detergent - hand washing, washing clothes and items that animal has touched, will kill the bacteria. Hosing down any areas the dog has urinated with bleach or disinfectant is also important. Letting the area dry completely before further contact will be safe, as leptospira bacteria can only survive in damp conditions and will die immediately the surface is dry - even if where the dog has urinated has dried, no bacteria can survive. Common household products such as bleach, vinegar, alcohol-based products and lemon juice, will all kill the bacteria. If you do become unwell via contact, the symptoms will be very much the same as described above. It is very important to get in touch with your doctor and to let them know you have an animal infected with leptospirosis. The doctor will normally treat you with antibiotics in large doses, commonly penicillin.


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