Leptospirosis, an Invisible Risk

Ariana Schwab, CVT
Senior Veterinary Industry Representative
Pet Poison Helpline

Leptospira is a bacterium that can cause a disease in animals and humans.  Leptospirosis is passed through the urine of an infected animal and then runs into the ground water.  Farm animals, dogs, raccoons, deer and rodents are just some of the animals that may then contract the disease through contact with the contaminated water or contaminated urine.  The bacteria can be ingested by drinking the water or can penetrate scratches in the skin, or soft tissues in the mouth, eyes and nose.

Leptospirosis can show in a variety of symptoms.  The infection can vary from mild to very severe.  Infected pets may develop vomiting, fever, lethargy, liver disease and increased urination or kidney failure or even death.  The signs may develop anywhere from 4-14 days after exposure.  A blood test can be done to confirm infection.

Treatment of this disease is most successful when treated early and aggressively.  Generally, this includes antibiotics and supportive care such as anti-nausea medications and intravenous fluids.  Some dogs may develop life long kidney or liver damage.  When caring for an infected pet, give all medications as directed and use extreme care to not come in direct contact with their urine.

The best prevention for your pet is a vaccination that protects against leptospirosis.  This is usually an annual vaccine.  While this vaccine is not required or considered a CORE vaccine, many pets are at risk, especially hunting dogs.  However, any dog that has access to where wildlife is, may be at risk.  This includes camping, dog parks, and even traveling dogs that may drink water from road ditches or contaminated ponds/lakes/rivers.  Try to discourage your pet from drinking standing water.  Speak with your veterinarian about your dog and they can help you decide if this should be part of their vaccine schedule.

While we are mostly focusing on animals here, it is important to know that humans can also become infected by contact with contaminated water or by contact with infected urine.  Humans may develop many “influenza like” symptoms such as headache, fever, chills, muscle aches, vomiting and diarrhea.  This can also lead to more serious issues like kidney or liver damage or meningitis.  If you have developed any of these signs or have specific questions about leptospirosis exposure, speak with your medical doctor.