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Leptospirosis in Dogs

By Otto M. Radostits, CM, DVM, MSc, DACVIM (Deceased), Professor Emeritus, Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan
David A. Ashford, DVM, MPH, DSc, Assistant Area Director, International Services, APHIS, USDA
Craig E. Greene, DVM, MS, Professor, Department of Small Animal Medicine, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Georgia
Eugene D. Janzen, DVM, MVS, Professor, Production Animal Health, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Calgary
Bert E. Stromberg, PhD, Professor, Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota
Max J. Appel, DMV, PhD,
Stephen C. Barr, BVSc, MVS, PhD, DACVIM, Professor of Medicine, Department of Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University
J. P. Dubey, MVSc, PhD, Microbiologist, Animal Parasitic Diseases Laboratory, Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, USDA
Paul Ettestad, DVM, MS, State Public Health Veterinarian, Epidemiology and Response Division, New Mexico Department of Health
Kenneth R. Harkin, DVM, DACVIM, Associate Professor, College of Veterinary Medicine, Kansas State University
Delores E. Hill, PhD, Parasitologist, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Johnny D. Hoskins, DVM, PhD,
Jodie Low Choy, BVSc, BVMS, IVAS Cert,
Barton W. Rohrbach, VMD, MPH, DACVPM, Associate Professor, Department of Comparative Medicine, Veterinary Teaching Hospital, University of Tennessee
J. Glenn Songer, PhD, Professor, Department of Veterinary Science and Microbiology, University of Arizona
Joseph Taboada, DVM, DACVIM, Professor and Associate Dean, Office of Student and Academic Affairs, School of Veterinary Medicine, Louisiana State University
Charles O. Thoen, DVM, PhD, Professor, Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine, College of Veterinary Medicine, Iowa State University
John F. Timoney, MVB, PhD, Dsc, MRCVS, Keeneland Chair of Infectious Diseases, Gluck Equine Research Center, Department of Veterinary Science, University of Kentucky
Ian Tizard, BVMS, PhD, DACVM, University Distinguished Professor of Immunology; Director, Richard M. Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center, Department of Veterinary Pathobiology, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University

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Leptospirosis is a disease caused by bacteria in the genus Leptospira; there are roughly 17 species. Because the organisms survive in surface waters (such as swamps, streams, and rivers) for extended periods, the disease is often waterborne.

Dogs contract leptospirosis by direct contact with infected urine or contaminated water sources, through bite wounds, by eating infected tissue, or exposure during birth. Once in the body, leptospires spread rapidly via the lymph system to the bloodstream and then to all tissues. If the animal mounts an immune response and survives, leptospires will be cleared from most organs and the bloodstream. However, the infection persists in sites hidden from the immune system; the most common hidden site is the kidneys. Persistence in the kidneys results in a carrier state; the infected animal may shed leptospires in the urine for at least a year.

Infections may be without signs or cause various early signs, including fever, jaundice, joint or muscle pain, loss of appetite, weakness, and discharge from the nose or eyes. This may progress within a few days to a kidney crisis characterized by loss of appetite, vomiting, dehydration, and lumbar pain from inflammation of the kidneys. Sudden kidney failure occurs in 80 to 90% of dogs that are severely affected. In dogs that develop milder forms of kidney failure, excessive intake of water followed by excessive urination may be the primary sign.

Kidney failure and liver disease are treated with fluid treatment and other supportive measures to maintain normal fluid, electrolyte, and acid-base balance. Your veterinarian will likely recommend antibiotics to treat the cause of disease.

Commercial vaccines for dogs are available for 4 of the subtypes of leptospirosis. Vaccinated dogs may still be susceptible to infections with other subtypes. Vaccination is recommended at yearly intervals. Dogs that have recently been exposed to leptospirosis may be treated with antibiotics given by mouth for 7 to 10 days to prevent infection.

Because leptospirosis can be transmitted to people, all veterinary staff should take appropriate precautions when handling known or suspected infected animals. Such dogs do not need to be placed in isolation but should be cared for while wearing protective clothing, paying particular attention to avoiding exposure of skin or mucous membranes to urine or blood. Infected dogs should be allowed to urinate in designated areas that can subsequently be cleaned and disinfected. The organisms are killed by all commonly used disinfectants. Owners of dogs recently diagnosed with leptospirosis should be advised that people can get it too and contact their physicians with any health concerns. Owners should wear gloves when cleaning up urine and should wash their hands after handling the dog, at least until antibiotic treatment is completed.

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