Before diving into the need-to-know information in this article, let’s start with a critical-thinking question. What do these three dogs have in common?

  • Matilda The fluffy Maltese missed her normal grooming appointment, and developed a mat in her silky hair that her owner tried to snip out with scissors, accidentally nicking her skin. The same day, they went for a stroll around the neighborhood park, where Matilda rolled in a particular patch of grass that was soaked with rat urine.
  • Ruger — This Labrador loved nothing more than leaping into every body of water he encountered, and when he stumbled across a pond during his daily hike with his owner, he wasted no time in taking a running leap and flinging himself into the pond, despite the stagnant water.
  • Millie The little Yorkie was one sick pup, in desperate need of medical attention. Rescued from a hoarding situation, she had been crammed in a tiny cage with several other dogs, with no food, and dirty water littered with rat droppings. In a rush to provide immediate care, Millie’s rescuer, who had been cut when she opened the wired-shut cage door, failed to wear gloves when handling the poor urine-soaked pooch.

Although not much about these three dogs appears similar, one key factor stands out—leptospirosis, or lepto, exposure. Millie’s rescuer is also at risk for contracting this bacterial pathogen through her open wound. Learn how your dog may be exposed to this wildlife-borne disease, and the best way to protect them. 

How can my pet contract leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis is a disease that infects dogs, and rarely, cats, with the Leptospira bacteria, which can be found in contaminated soil and water. Many strains, or serovars, can cause disease, but the most common vaccination for lepto protects dogs against the top four U.S. strains. While lepto used to be considered a disease that typically affected large dogs, male dogs, or dogs with an outdoor lifestyle, any dog can be exposed to this bacteria because of the prevalence of wildlife carriers as urban sprawl encroaches on natural habitats. 

Risk factors for leptospirosis include:

  • Areas with warm climates and high annual rainfall 
  • Exposure to or drinking from streams and ponds
  • Roaming on rural properties
  • Exposure to wild animals or farm animals
  • Contact with rodents 
  • Contact with other dogs

Dogs can contract lepto a variety of ways, but most commonly, development occurs through direct contact. Dogs can become infected if their mucous membranes, such as gum tissue, or an open wound comes in contact with infected urine, or urine-contaminated soil, water, food, or bedding. They can also contract the disease through an infected animal bite, by eating infected tissues or carcasses, and rarely, through breeding. Lepto can also be passed through the placenta from the mother to her puppies.

Occasionally, lepto hot spots will form and serve as an infection hotbed for dogs—and their humans—who frequent the area. Most human leptospirosis cases result from recreational activities involving water, such as swimming, boating, or fishing, and, if your dog joins these activities, they are also at risk for developing lepto. However, as urban sprawl takes over wildlife habitat and attracts rodents—two key lepto carriers—any dog and person can be exposed to this disease.   

What are the signs of leptospirosis?

Diagnosing leptospirosis in dogs can be challenging, since the clinical signs vary so widely. Some infected dogs fail to show illness, some develop a mild illness and recover spontaneously, while others become severely ill. 

If your furry pal contracts lepto, you may notice the following signs:

  • Fever
  • Shivering
  • Muscle tenderness
  • Reluctance to move
  • Increased thirst
  • Changes in the frequency or amount of urination
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Jaundice 

Leptospirosis can attack the kidneys and liver, leading to organ failure, or may cause severe lung disease. Lepto can also cause bleeding disorders, which can lead to blood-tinged vomit, urine, or stool; nosebleeds; and pinpoint bruising visible on light-colored skin and gum tissue. 

How can I protect my pet from leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis can pop up anywhere in urban or rural areas, so no pet is safe. However, you can take several steps to reduce your four-legged friend’s risk for contracting this disease, along with mitigating your own disease risk. To keep your pet and your family safe, follow these steps:

  • Vaccinate appropriately — The lepto vaccination is an annual one, as immunity lasts only about 12 months, so ensure you booster your dog yearly so they remain protected.
  • Discourage wildlife — Make your home less appealing to wildlife and rodents by removing potential bedding and feeding areas, securing trash, and removing stagnant water sources.
  • Keep your pet leashed — If your pooch explores everything with their mouth, keep them leashed. You can reel your dog in to avoid standing bodies of water, wildlife, and animal carcasses you may discover on your adventures.
  • Practice good hygiene when cleaning up after your pet — Always clean your hands thoroughly after cleaning up your pet’s accidents. If possible, wear gloves as an additional protective layer. 

By following these simple steps, you can greatly reduce your entire family’s risk for lepto exposure. 

Leptospirosis poses a serious health threat to pets and people alike, and vaccination is key to slowing and preventing the spread of this zoonotic disease. To protect your furry pal from this contagious bacteria, call us to schedule a vaccination appointment.