Leptospirosis – Threat To Man And Beast


If you work or play outdoors, you and your pet may be at risk of exposure to an old bacterial disease that is getting a lot of new, and news attention recently. Leptospirosis, commonly called “Lepto”, is a bacterial disease that was first identified in the late 1800’s. Veterinarians are finding Lepto more commonly because of an increased exposure of our pets to wildlife. It is rarely fatal, but can seriously damage the liver, kidneys, and eyes.

Veterinarians have used vaccines to protect dogs against Lepto for a number of years and these vaccines were successful in decreasing the incidence of the disease caused by the two most common strains of the bacteria that affected dogs. But two other strains of Lepto have become more prevalent in dogs, so new vaccines have been developed.

With recent public awareness of possible side effects of vaccines in general, these new vaccines have met with mixed emotions from some veterinary practitioners, but most agree that the severity of the problems associated with Lepto infection may outweigh possible vaccine-related risks.

“Should we do it?” asks Dr. Katherine Lunn, PhD, MRCVS, DACVIM of the Veterinary Referral Center in Waukesha, Wis. “I think so, as long as we evaluate the potential risks and discuss them with our clients. Like any medical procedure, vaccination has risks and benefits. The client and the veterinarian have to weigh these. If the vaccine were 100% safe, I would recommend vaccinating every patient. Acute renal failure due to Leptospirosis is devastating. I would not want my dog to experience it. But if side effects are common, then that’s a different story.”

Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease- a disease that can be passed between animals and people. It is spread by spirochete bacteria in the urine of infected rodents, wildlife, and pets. The leptospira organisms enter the body through mucous membranes or through abraded skin. People and animals can become infected from direct exposure to infected urine, but also through contaminated environment, such as water or damp soil. People can even become infected at certain high risks jobs if they handle animals or animal products. Because the Lepto organism depends upon wet conditions for survival, increased caution is advised during times of increased rainfall or when there is any standing water.

Leptospirosis is on the rise due to increased exposure to wildlife can carry the disease as urban and suburban areas continue to expand and encroach upon wild habitats. People and pets may be exposed to more animals such as raccoons, skunks, opossums, coyotes or deer that are infected with Leptospirosis. Livestock owners protect their animals such as pigs, cattle and goats with vaccinations and good husbandry.

Dr. Kenneth Harkin, a veterinarian and infectious disease specialist with Kansas State University says “While people may think of Lepto as a disease spread by wildlife, it can come from backyard wildlife, including raccoons- even city dogs can get Lepto.” He cautions that every pet owner needs to be aware that “Lepto is everywhere.”

People and pets can also become exposed to Lepto while camping or participating in outdoor recreational activities. Drinking or swimming in water that is infected with Lepto is the most common exposure, but wet soil can be contaminated as well, so be cautious when digging in damp ground. And don’t let a city environment be your pet’s primary protection against a serious disease.

The signs of Leptospirosis can mimic many other diseases and illnesses. The first signs in dogs are often depression, loss of appetite, vomiting, weakness, and generalized pain. Affected dogs may also drink water and urinate excessively and have swollen, red, and painful eyes. Because these signs are common to other diseases and non-specific, owners may try to treat their pets at home for such problems as an upset stomach or arthritis. This delays proper diagnosis and treatment for their dog, as well as increasing their own exposure to the disease. If caught early, treatment is usually effective and the survival rate is good. However, time is of the essence.

Dr. Harkin warns, “If you let it go for three to five days, or treat it with the wrong medication, it can cause irreversible kidney failure.”

Talk to your veterinarian about the risks of Leptospirosis for your dog. Ask if vaccinating your pet is appropriate. Lepto is extremely rare in cats, but horses can get the disease and there is no vaccine at this time to protect them. Leptospirosis in people can often begin with vague, flu-like symptoms. If you engage in outdoor work or activities, ask your doctor about protecting yourself.

You can watch an interesting video about Leptospirosis by visiting www.VetNewsNet.com.