With all the amazing rain that California is finally getting, pet owners need to be aware of a bacterial infection seen more often during the rainy season. Leptospirosis is a spirochete bacteria which is transmitted through urine and contaminated water sources.  Multiple strains of the bacteria exist and vaccines are available for many of these strains. Dogs are susceptible to infection and the strain contracted determines the clinical signs that are seen.  Most often the kidneys and liver will be affected.  The organism causes inflammation in the small blood vessels (vasculitis) and affects different organs.


Dogs at risk include those who drink from outdoor native water sources -more often slow moving water, running on rural property accessible to wild or farm animals.  Some dogs can be exposed and not become clinically ill, though in other dogs the disease can be fatal, particularly if the kidneys are damaged by the disease enough to fail acutely. Signs of illness can be nonspecific: fever, lethargy, change in urination pattern, appetite loss and intestinal signs.  If the liver is affected, then jaundice- yellowing of skin and gums can occur.  Bleeding and breathing problems are also evident in some cases. 

Leptospirosis is diagnosed by a blood and urine test. Prior to any antibiotic administration, samples can be sent to the lab for PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing to look for the genetic material of the organism.  Veterinarians can also run a titer to the organism to determine which strain might be affecting a patient.  Other tests are done on patients to determine which organ system might be involved and to what degree. These include blood tests, urinalysis and radiographs and in some cases ultrasound.  Treatment dependent on the severity of the case may include intravenous fluids to help flush the kidneys and/or liver, as well as antibiotics (doxycycline or ampicillin) to clear the organism from the blood, kidneys, and liver.  If the kidneys start to shut down and the amount of urine produced drops, more aggressive therapy, and in some cases hemodialysis, may be needed to save a pet.

Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease meaning people can contract it and get fever like symptoms. If a dog is suspected of having this disease, avoid touching the urine, don’t let the dog urinate near water and use good hygiene practices.  People more often contract this disease from water rather than an infected pet. However if one becomes ill around the time the pet is diagnosed, the pet owner should check with their physician, particularly if they are immune compromised.

Prevention includes vaccines administered annually for at-risk dogs: those who swim in slow moving water, spend time around farm and wild animals and have high contact with rats or other outdoor dogs.

Birchbark was able to help save a patient with acute kidney failure from Leptospirosis in 2014: Kiki who lives with her developmentally disabled owner Howard. You can read about her at http://www.birchbarkfoundation.org/success-stories/kiki

You can learn more about this disease at these websites and discuss with your veterinarian whether your pet might be at risk for leptospirosis.




Blog Post Author:
Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM