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Leptospirosis in dogs: Causes, symptoms, and treatment

The essentials

  • Vaccines are crucial for prevention — While dogs can contract the lepto virus after being vaccinated, staying up to date on the shot greatly reduces the risk of infection.
  • Symptoms of lepto can mimic other issues — Signs of leptospirosis include fevers, vomiting, and loss of appetite, among others.
  • Leptospirosis can be treated — Your vet may prescribe antibiotics as well as provide fluids and fever-reducing medication.

Regardless of whether or not your particular pup is exhibiting symptoms, leptospirosis, commonly referred to as “lepto virus” and “Weil disease,” is a bacterial disease all dog owners should know about.

The condition is caused by a bacteria known as Leptospira which, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) , has over 250 strains. Dogs contract leptospirosis by coming into direct contact with the urine of an infected animal. The disease is also zoonotic, meaning it can be spread from infected dogs, cats, and other animals to humans. 

Fortunately, there is a vaccine that dogs can receive each year to prevent leptospirosis. Here’s what you need to know about recognizing and treating the condition.

Signs of leptospirosis in dogs

There is a wide range of symptoms associated with lepto, many of which overlap with other health issues. If you’re concerned, it’s best to consult your veterinarian to get to the bottom of your best friend’s ailments. 

Here are the most common signs of canine leptospirosis:

  • Fever. Dogs with body temperatures of 103 degrees or higher should seek emergency veterinary care. In addition to fevers, chills, and muscle aches are also symptoms of leptospirosis.
  • Loss of appetite. If your dog isn’t eating, they may be experiencing stress or dental disease. However, it can also be a sign of canine lepto virus.
  • Stomach upset. Gastrointestinal issues like vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain are commonly associated with leptospirosis.
  • Dehydration.  Dogs that are dehydrated due to lepto will have off-color gums and thicker saliva. They may also appear lethargic and have low energy.
  • Jaundice. Dogs experiencing a severe leptospirosis infection may develop a yellow pigment in their skin, gums, and the whites of their eyes, called jaundice. It generally indicates liver strain.

How leptospirosis is transmitted in dogs

Leptospirosis is spread via the urine of infected animals, among other ways. The leptospira bacteria thrives in warm tropical areas and can be exposed to dogs through their mucous membranes, which are their eyes, noses, and mouths. Dogs can also be infected with the bacteria through open wounds.  

Here are the most common sources of lepto virus transmission:

  • Water. Stagnant or slow-moving water like puddles, streams, and lakes can be easily contaminated with animal urine (and therefore, leptospirosis).
  • Soil. Dogs that interact with dirt and mud run the risk of exposure to harmful bacteria like leptospira.
  • Bedding. Blankets, dog beds, and crates can be contaminated with infected urine, particularly at kennels and daycares.
  • Bowls. Shared food and water bowls also run the risk of cross-contamination. Be sure to thoroughly wash your hands and bowls before administering meals, and feed pets separately to lower transmission risk.
  • Wildlife. In some cases, a dog may get leptospirosis by interacting directly with an infected animal. In addition to dogs and cats, other animals that can contract the disease include rodents small animals like raccoons and opossums, and larger animals like deer and foxes.

Diagnosing leptospirosis in dogs

If you in any way suspect your dog has contracted lepto virus, you should seek veterinary care immediately. 

Because the symptoms of leptospirosis can mimic so many other medical conditions, your vet will need your help in the diagnosis process. Here are some questions your veterinarian may ask:

  • What is your dog’s lifestyle like? They may ask about how many times a day you walk your dog and where, as well as information about recent travels with your pup.
  • Has your dog interacted with other animals recently? This question includes interactions with other dogs, domestic animals, rodents, and wildlife.
  • How have you tried to treat their symptoms at home? Any information regarding at-home remedies (like switching to a bland diet to address tummy issues, or using over-the-counter supplements and products to help) can assist your vet in diagnosis and treatment. 
  • How long ago was your dog possibly exposed to leptospirosis? The lepto virus generally has a 1-2 week incubation period after exposure before symptoms begin presenting, so establishing a timeline is important.

To diagnose leptospirosis, a veterinarian may test for antibodies via a microscopic agglutination test (MAT), a PCR urine test, or a blood test — though the effectiveness of these tests can vary depending on the phases of the infection. Your vet may also recommend liver function tests or chest X-rays.

Treating leptospirosis in dogs

If your dog is diagnosed with lepto, treatment needs to happen quickly to prevent further complications or death. Every dog is unique, so how your veterinarian decides to treat them will be specific to their case of lepto virus. Your pup’s age, weight, breed, and the stage of their infection will all be factored into their treatment plan.

Generally speaking, an antibiotic like doxycycline will be prescribed for the first 2-3 weeks of treatment if there is an early diagnosis. Fluids may also be administered in the case your dog is suffering from dehydration, as well as medication to reduce any potential fevers. 

👉 For severe cases of leptospirosis, intensive care methods may be necessary. Treatments in this category can include mechanical ventilation for breathing problems or dialysis for renal failure.

Keep in mind that the lepto virus is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be passed from animals to people in rare cases. Even mild cases of a leptospirosis infection should be handled with care. 

Our tip? Wear protective clothing and avoid coming into contact with your pup’s urine. If you suspect you’ve been exposed to the disease, consult your healthcare provider immediately. Infected persons can be treated with antibiotics prescribed by their doctor.

Potential outcomes of canine leptospirosis

Unfortunately, leptospirosis is considered a severe disease. Even if a dog recovers from an infection, the condition may leave behind lasting effects — such as permanent liver damage and kidney damage. Blood clots and meningitis (brain and spinal cord inflammation) are also possible side effects.

🚨Leptospirosis has a 10-20% fatality rate, and dogs with respiratory distress are considered less likely to survive. Immediate treatment is key to a more favorable outcome.

How to prevent leptospirosis in dogs

When it comes to protecting your canine companion from this potentially lethal infection, the lepto vaccine is incredibly important. The vaccine is initially given in two doses 2-4 weeks apart, followed by an annual shot. Puppies can receive the lepto shot when they are as young as 8-12 weeks old, and then once a year after that. Senior dogs may need to get the shot twice a year as they have a shorter duration of immunity.

With so many strains of  Leptospira bacteria, vaccination doesn’t guarantee prevention. However, it is a good way to lower your pet friend’s risk. 

Here are other prevention methods owners can take in addition to vaccinating their best friends:

Avoid standing water — Letting your dog drink or play in puddles, ponds, marsh, or other slow-moving and still water puts them at risk of exposure to bacteria. Bring fresh water on hikes and camping trips so your furry friend doesn’t resort to drinking from contaminated sources.

Avoid animals…dead or alive — Interacting with wildlife, farm animals, and unvaccinated pets can spread leptospirosis — including the dead animals your dog may come across on their daily jaunt.

Avoid rodent problems — Rats and mice carry all kinds of diseases and bacteria, putting your pup at risk in the event one comes into the house or yard. Keep your garbage lids secure and clean up crumbs that may entice rodent visitors.

While lepto is scary, keeping pets inside the house 24/7 to protect them isn’t practical. Rational prevention is key — and so is lepto vaccination.

Keep your dog up to date on their shots and stay vigilant when it comes to engaging with wild animals or possibly contaminated water sources, and you can have peace of mind knowing your favorite furball is as protected as possible from the dangers of leptospirosis.

Frequently asked questions

What are the signs of leptospirosis in dogs?

Signs of leptospirosis may be confused with signs of other medical conditions. Owners will need to look out for mild to severe symptoms like a high fever, vomiting, lethargy, and dehydration, which are symptoms that are commonly associated with early-stage lepto. 

Is leptospirosis curable in dogs?

Complete recovery from canine leptospirosis is possible, but dogs may still experience kidney failure, liver failure, meningitis, or blood clots as a result of initial infection. Your veterinarian can help support their quality of life and recovery process as much as possible. 

How common is lepto virus in dogs?

Because many cases go undiagnosed and unreported, it is difficult to say exactly how many cases of canine leptospirosis there are every year in the United States, but we do know it’s most prevalent in the Midwest, east, and Southeast. The leptospira bacteria thrives in tropical climates.

What dog breeds are sensitive to the lepto vaccine?

While smaller breeds like dachshunds and Chihuahuas used to experience adverse reactions to the lepto vaccine, the shot has since been reformulated to limit side effects.

How do I protect my dog from leptospirosis?

The most effective way to prevent your dog from contracting leptospirosis is by keeping them up to date on their lepto vaccine. Additionally, owners should avoid letting their dogs drink or swim in potentially contaminated water like puddles and ponds.