Spotting, Treating and Preventing Leptospirosis in Dogs

Dog in Dirty Lake
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Letting your dog drink from standing water or swim in water that may be contaminated can put him at risk for leptospirosis.

You may not think a walk in the woods or a swim in a lake with your dog might lead to illness, but it could — potentially for both of you. 

Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be passed between animals and people and is caused by bacteria. Infected animals spread the bacteria in their urine, which can taint the soil and water. Drinking contaminated water or having contact with contaminated water or soil can lead to infection.

In North America, leptospirosis has historically affected rural livestock, pet populations and wild animals like skunks, opossums and raccoons. Although cats can become infected with the bacteria, feline leptospirosis cases are rare. 

Signs, Diagnosis and Treatment

Signs of leptospirosis can vary and often develop two to 12 days after exposure to the bacteria. The most common signs include abdominal discomfort, decreased appetite and vomiting. In some cases, dogs may have a range of less specific flu-like signs, including fever, muscle tenderness and depression. Because the organism settles in the kidneys and actually reproduces there, inflammation and even kidney failure can develop. Liver failure can be another consequence of infection. Call your veterinarian if your dog exhibits any of these signs — leptospirosis can be deadly if it's not caught early.

Antibiotic therapy can help minimize organ damage and the risk of spreading the bacteria to other animals and humans. The risk to people becomes minimal within 24 hours of starting your dog on antibiotic therapy, but appropriate precautions, such as avoiding contact with urine and wearing gloves, should still be taken. Treatment typically takes two to three weeks. Dogs with signs of kidney and/or liver failure may also need hospitalization and supportive treatment, such as IV fluids.

Prevention

Don't let your dog drink from standing water or swim in bodies of water that may be contaminated. And since humans can also become infected, handle dogs who may have been infected with care. Practice good hygiene, like frequent hand washing, and avoid contact with potentially contaminated urine. Additionally, there is a vaccine available that can help protect your dog from leptospirosis. Talk to your veterinarian about whether it might be right for your pet.

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