Leptospirosis: What exactly is it?

by | Aug 24, 2021 | Blog

When you get a new dog, one of the first things you do is take it to the vet to “get its shots”. Most people remember the core vaccines – distemper (a combination vaccine that guards against four to 5 canine-specific viruses), rabies (required by law in most states), and kennel cough (called Bordetella, it’s required by most kennels, groomers, and recommended for any dog that spends a lot of time around other dogs). There’s a fourth vaccine, neither considered a “core vaccine” nor required by law, that not all dog owners are aware of – the leptospirosis vaccine.
Leptospira interrogans – a spirochete (corkscrew shaped) bacteria responsible for leptospirosis bacterial infections

What is Leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection caused by a species of bacteria known as Leptospira interrogans. This bacteria flourishes in water and wet areas. It travels in rodent urine, meaning that any place a rat or raccoon (among others) has passed through may harbor the bacteria. Dogs who like to swim, play in puddles, or romp around in mud may be exposed to the bacteria, as well as dogs that live in homes near greenspaces, beaches, or parks.

Hunting, hiking, and doing other outdoor activities with your dog is also an exposure risk. For dogs that live in dry, arid climates, this may be less of a worry. For dogs that don’t do much outdoor activity, maybe this vaccine isn’t necessary. You’ll have to decide with your doctor if this vaccine would be good for your dog. No matter how old your dog is when he starts getting the leptospirosis vaccine (often just called lepto), he will need the initial vaccine, a booster vaccine two weeks later, and then a booster annually for the rest of his life.
Carry fresh water and a collapsible bowl so your dog isn’t tempted to drink from puddles

What are some of the symptoms of leptospirosis?

Symptoms of leptospirosis infection range from vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, and fever to jaundice, anorexia, and respiratory distress. For a full list, please see the American Veterinary Medical Association’s article on leptospirosis. If you suspect your dog may have contracted leptospirosis, please seek medical care for him immediately.

What are some of the symptoms of leptospirosis?

Symptoms of leptospirosis infection range from vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, and fever to jaundice, anorexia, and respiratory distress. For a full list, please see the American Veterinary Medical Association’s article on leptospirosis. If you suspect your dog may have contracted leptospirosis, please seek medical care for him immediately.

Carry fresh water and a collapsible bowl so your dog isn’t tempted to drink from puddles
All of these critters carry the leptospirosis bacteria – so get your dog vaccinated if these guys visit your backyard!

Is there any risk to me? What about my cat?

One more important thing to remember about leptospirosis is that it’s zoonotic – it can be passed from animals to humans. Leptospirosis in humans is rare and most cases are from humans engaging in water recreation. The risk of getting leptospirosis from your dog is incredibly low. Aside from vaccination, the best way to protect your dog is to rinse or bathe him after swimming and to not let him drink out of standing water or puddles or urinate in them. Protect yourself by washing your hands after petting or playing with your dog and after dealing with his urine (accidents in the house, etc.).

Leptospirosis isn’t a concern specific to dogs – cats can contract it too. It just doesn’t happen as often, as cats tend to avoid water. If you have an indoor-only cat, the risk is even lower, as your cat isn’t running around in mud or coming into contact with wild animals that may carry the bacteria. Not all veterinarians and clinics have the vaccine for cats due to the low rate of infection in felines. As always, your veterinarian is your best source of information – please call or email your vet’s office if you have any questions or concerns about the vaccine or the disease, or talk to your pet’s vet at his next annual visit. Together, you can make the best decision for your pet.

In the news

Leptospirosis isn’t just a concern for pets and urban animal dwellers – check out this article about California sea lions off the coast of Oregon: State warns of sick, stranded sea lions on Oregon coast (10/26/2017).