Leptospirosis - What is it and What Does it Mean for Your Dog?

Leptospirosis is lurking! Keep your pet safe!

You may be shrugging your shoulders right now thinking, “Lepto-what? I’ve never heard of such a thing!” Well, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Leptospirosis is a little known disease that is actually quite common in the New Jersey area, and infection rates are on the rise.

Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that can infect not only dogs, but people as well. The disease is caused by the pathogen Leptospira bacteria, which is transmitted in the urine of infected animals. While the most common carriers are rats, other animals such as dogs, pigs, goats, cattle, horses, raccoons and opossums can carry and transmit the disease. When an infected animal urinates, the bacteria can be deposited into the soil and survive for up to several months.

Your canine companion can pick up the bacteria through a cut or other break in the skin when he comes into contact with contaminated soil or water (the water becomes contaminated when rain pushes contaminated soil into bodies of water, or when rain water collects and puddles over contaminated soil). Animals at greatest risk for Leptospirosis are those who spend a great deal of time in the water or in areas that collect rain or snow runoff, as well as those who drink from puddles, ponds or other sources of stagnant water. The bite of an infected animal can also spread the disease.

Leptospira bacteria thrive in warm, humid environments and infection is most common in the summer months, the early fall, and during periods of flooding.

Symptoms of a Leptospirosis Infection

 It’s not uncommon for a dog with a mild infection to never show any symptoms at all. Clinical signs depend on the dog’s age and overall health, environmental facts that affect the bacteria, and the degree of the bacteria species that is present. Leptospirosis bacteria comes in the form of over 20 different species that could potentially infect a dog.

If your pooch is exposed to the bacteria, symptoms will likely appear within four to 12 days and can include:

  • Fever
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Depression
  • Muscle pain
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Blood in the urine

Since the infection primarily affects the kidneys and liver, serious cases can be displayed with jaundice, which is the yellowing of the skin and mucous membranes. In dogs, this is most obvious in the whites of their eyes, as they will turn a yellowish tint. Jaundice indicates an inflamed liver, as the liver cells are destroyed by the Leptospirosis bacteria.

A dog infected with Leptospirosis can also develop issues with blood clotting which, in turn, can result in blood present in the stool and bleeding from the tissues of the mouth. In rare cases, it can also cause lung hemorrhage and respiratory distress.

Prevention is Key

 There is a Leptospirosis vaccination available which can decrease the severity of illness should your dog become infected. Unfortunately, with the number of species – or strains – of the bacteria (similar to the flu), the vaccine isn’t 100% effective.

You yourself can reduce the risk of infection by safely controlling the rodent population in and around your home and by keeping your pooch away from ponds, slow moving water, and standing or stagnant water.


If you have a healthy dog who suddenly displays any of the symptoms listed above, you need to call your veterinarian immediately and arrange for a Lepto test. A seriously ill pooch must be hospitalized to receive antibiotics, hydration, proper nutrition and the appropriate supportive care to control vomiting and diarrhea. Dogs with milder infections can be treated at home as long as you, the pet parent, takes the appropriate hygiene precautions when cleaning up your pooch’s urine. Remember, Leptospirosis can be transmitted from animals to humans, so proper hygiene is a must!

As for those infected dogs who don’t display symptoms, it is possible for them to recover without medical treatment. Unfortunately, an untreated dog can still become a carrier of the disease and shed the bacteria in his urine for up to one year.

Our canine companions are members of our family and we want to ensure their health and happiness. As with most ailments, the best thing you can do for your dog is to be continuously aware of his behavior so you recognize when he is acting out of sorts. Leptospirosis is a totally treatable bacterial infection ~ it’s only when a diagnosis isn’t made early enough that dogs suffer unnecessarily.

Written by Darlene Wagner Butler for The Poop and Nothing But the Poop

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