Leptospirosis, aka. “Lepto” What Is It and What Do I Need To Know?

What is Lepto?

Though still not as popular in the news as Lyme disease is these days, Leptospirosis is gaining recognition as an immerging disease due to travel and climate change. You may have heard of this disease in the news or from a friend, or you may even be vaccinating your dog for it but are still a bit fuzzy on the specifics. Hopefully, this article will help clear this up:

Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease of dogs and other mammals (including humans) that is spread through the urine of infected animals. The organism quickly spreads through the bloodstream and settles in the liver or/and kidneys causing disease and sometimes failure.

How Are Dogs Infected?

The urine of infected mammals (ie: rodents, raccoons, skunks, squirrels, deer, and sometimes livestock) carries the bacteria into the soil and run-off water (ponds, ditches, puddles) and can survive there for weeks to months in warm weather. Though most people think that your dog has to drink the contaminated water in order to get infected, the bacteria can actually enter the body through broken skin or any mucous membrane (eyes, gums, nose). So in reality, your dog could simply walk or swim in contaminated water and get this potentially fatal disease.

Do We Have To Worry About Lepto In The Maritimes?

In the past 10 years there have been over 100 confirmed (of the samples sent to the AVC for testing) cases of leptospirosis in NB, NS, NFLD, and PEI. Though still relatively uncommon, certain dogs are more at risk than others: hunting or retrieving dogs, dogs who spend a lot of time in the wilderness, dogs who live in rural areas, dogs with families who camp/hike a lot, dogs who can’t resist jumping in or drinking from any pond or puddles, ect. If any of these sound like your dog, I would discuss vaccination with your veterinarian.


What Are The Symptoms?

As the bacteria spreads through the bloodstream it can cause symptoms such as fever, joint pain, and general malaise that last up to 1 week. Then once the organism settles in the kidney/liver, they begin to reproduce, leading to more inflammation which causes vomiting, diarrhea, anorexia, abdominal pain, lethargy and severe muscle pain. Eventually this can lead to organ failure which may carry the following signs: bleeding from the mouth, blood shot eyes, blood in the diarrhea/vomit, jaundice (yellow skin, gums, and eyes), ulcers in the mouth, excessive thirst and urinating more often, the urine may even become an amber or red colour.


The time between exposure and developing symptoms is usually 5-14 days, but can be as short as a few days or as long 30+ days. If you think your dog may have leptospirosis, contact your veterinarian immediately! This is a life-threatening disease if left untreated.

How Is Lepto Diagnosed?

Because the signs and symptoms are so variable and easily confused with other, more common diseases, a definitive diagnosis can be difficult to achieve. The only way to know for sure this is the disease affecting your dog is to send away 2 blood samples: one when he/she first shows signs and then again in the ‘recovery’ period; and comparing the two. As this can take weeks to be finalized, if your vet has ‘reasonable suspicion’ of lepto, he/she will likely start the treatment before know for sure. Any delay in treatment could lessen the chances of survival.

Is There A Cure?

The bacteria can be killed with simple antibiotics, but affected dogs generally need intensive in-hospital treatment for dehydration, kidney failure, liver inflammation or any combination of these problems caused by the infection. Blood transfusion may even be required if bleeding has started. In severe cases, even after treatment, there may be irreversible liver or kidney damage.

How Can I Prevent Lepto?

Be aware of environments where lepto is most likely to be found (stagnant water, wetlands, especially if downstream from a farm) and avoid them with your dog. If you cannot avoid these areas, vaccinate your dog. This requires and initial 2 shots, 1 month apart, and then continuing the vaccine each year. You absolutely cannot be late for this vaccine; if so, you must start over with the 2 needles.

Please remember that lepto is a disease that can affect humans just as readily as dogs. If you or your veterinarian suspects your dog may have leptospirosis, use the utmost caution (i.e.: rubber or latex gloves) when cleaning up any areas the dog may have soiled. This organism is readily killed by most household disinfectants or a dilute (1:16) bleach solution.