Leptospirosis is a common zoonotic (transmissible to humans) disease found all over the world. Dogs become infected after exposure to contaminated urine from infected, shedding wild animals.
So, unlike rabies where the animals have to interact directly, with leptospirosis the wild animal can be long gone when your pet explores a nifty smelling area in a park or even your back garden. I know I have raccoons coming around sniffing the barbecue because I see their footprints on the deck.
After exposure, the bacteria penetrate mucous membranes (lips, tongue, nose) and can cause damage to internal organs like the liver and kidneys. Unfortunately, the symptoms of fever, vomiting, diarrhea, anorexia, weakness are pretty general and could be caused by many diseases. So it can take a while before testing occurs.
The primary way that leptospirosis is transmitted from pets to humans is through contact with urine. And in some cases, dogs without adequate treatment can shed lepto in their urine for as long as 3 months. Humans with lepto have similar vague symptoms of fever, headache, chills and vomiting. Definitely, can be confused as “just the flu” for a long time. A strong suspicion of leptospirosis is needed to indicate correct testing.
Dogs can be vaccinated against leptospirosis if their lifestyle indicates. Unfortunately, the vaccine does not provide 100% protection as there are many types of lepto bacteria and the vaccine does not provide immunity against all strains. But it is a good place to start.
Written by Jennifer Merry, BSc (Agr) DVM