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How to Keep Your Dog From Getting Leptospirosis

Once limited to rural outdoor and working dogs, vets are now seeing urban and suburban pets with leptospirosis.

Arden Moore  |  May 16th 2016


Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our February/March issue. Subscribe to Dogster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.
Even if your dog lives 24/7 indoors or wears protective booties on every walk, he is still at risk for an under-the-radar but highly contagious bacterial disease known as leptospirosis.

Your dog can become infected in many ways, including:

  • Biting contaminated wildlife, such as rats, raccoons, opossums, deer, and skunks.
  • Coming into contact with urine from contaminated wildlife.
  • Licking muddy paws after walking in soil contaminated with this bacteria.
  • Drinking or swimming in these contaminated lakes, rivers, or puddles.

These spiral-shaped bacteria can survive in water and wet soil for weeks, even months. It burrows into the skin and spreads through the bloodstream to damage the kidneys, liver, blood vessels, and lungs.

This disease can sometimes be difficult to diagnose because many of its symptoms – vomiting, diarrhea, fever, shivering, moving stiffly when walking — often mimic other more common conditions. A veterinarian will most likely perform blood and urine tests to rule out other conditions.

Labradors swimming by Shutterstock.

Labradors swimming by Shutterstock.

But adding to the challenge: Leptospirosis takes time — up to seven to 10 days after being exposed through infected urine — to show signs in an infected dog.

“Unfortunately, we are seeing more cases of leptospirosis in animal emergency clinics throughout the country, from New York to Mississippi and Florida to the Pacific Northwest,” said Mike LoSasso, D.V.M., an emergency medicine veterinarian at the Emergency Animal Hospital of Collin County in Plano, Texas. “This nasty disease is not as fatal as rabies is, but the chances of your dog getting leptospirosis are quite higher than him getting rabies.”

Outdoor or working dogs in rural environments used to be regarded as high-risk candidates for leptospirosis. Not anymore.

“We are now seeing smaller breed dogs in urban and suburban areas being diagnosed with leptospirosis,” Dr. LoSasso said. “Now, dogs can be exposed to leptospirosis in their own backyards.”

I admit that I knew very little about leptospirosis until I recently spent a couple night shifts at the ER clinic where Dr. LoSasso works for a recent story in Dogster. During my time there, I saw three cases of leptospirosis. Each infected dog was assigned a seasoned veterinary technician wearing PPE (personal protective equipment, including gloves and face masks) to keep them from becoming exposed to this disease.

The most surprising case involved a sweet, pampered Maltese whose only outdoor access was her fenced-in backyard. She was extremely weak when she arrived at the ER clinic and required a feeding tube and steady supply of antibiotics, anti-nausea medicine, and intravenous fluids to save her life. She spent six days hospitalized and, fortunately, recovered completely.

Maltese by Shutterstock.

Maltese by Shutterstock.

One effective option to reduce a pet’s risk is the leptospirosis vaccine that must be given each year to maintain its efficacy. And, it must be noted that the vaccine does not provide 100-percent protection. The reason is that there are many types of leptospires and the current vaccine does not deliver immunity against all these types.

The vaccine protection lasts for one year, so annual boosters are necessary to continue to prevent disease.

“This is not a ‘core’ or ‘mandatory vaccine,’ but I think at this point, it should be,” Dr. LoSasso said.

Heeding his advice, I booked a recent appointment with my veterinarian to have my dogs, Chipper and Cleo, as well as my sister’s three dogs who we lived with, receive this vaccine.

And finally, as mentioned, your dog isn’t the only one at risk. Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease, meaning that your dog can infect you, especially if you come in contact with his contaminated urine by using paper towels to clean up a pee accident on your kitchen floor.

“At a bare minimum, you should always wash your hands after cleaning up your dog’s urine or excrement in the house,” Dr. LoSasso said. “Even if you use paper towels to clean up the mess, still wash your hands with anti-bacterial soap. I urge pet owners to keep a box of latex gloves and put on gloves before cleaning up any pet accident. Leptospirosis is a very serious disease, especially in people who are immune comprised. Why take the risk?”

An ounce of prevention

In addition to vaccinating your dog annually, minimize the risk to your dog — and to you — for contracting leptospirosis by taking these preventive measures:

  • Report any subtle changes in your dog’s behavior and book wellness examinations with his veterinarian at least once a year; ideally, twice a year.
  • Do not allow your dog to drink from puddles, lakes, or other water sources that might be contaminated. In a multi-pet household, a dog returning from a hike can have the bacteria on his paws and pass it on to other household pets.
  • Get in the habit of cleaning your dog’s paws with a damp washcloth each time he comes in from outside.
  • Hire a pet-friendly pest control company to reduce the chance of mice, rats, or other rodents on your property.
  • Avoid picking up or handling dead or injured rodents you encounter outdoors.