Leptospirosis – You and Your dog

Recently a client reached out to us asking about the recent outbreak of Leptospirosis in New York city.  Three people were diagnosed with Leptospirosis in the Bronx, with one person dying.  A veterinary hospital in Paramus, New Jersey reported treating 5 dogs with 3 fatalities this month.  So, what is Leptospirosis?  Leptospirosis (lepto for short) is a worldwide disease caused by spiral bacteria affecting both dogs and people (cats don’t seem to get Lepto).  Lepto is carried by cattle, pigs, horses, dogs, mice, rats, racoons, skunks, squirrels, opossums, and deer.  Lepto is transmitted to people and dogs through contact with urine or body fluids. Lepto is also transmitted through water, soil, or food contaminated with urine from infected animals.  The bacteria enter through breaks in the skin, mucous membranes, or drinking contaminated water.  Lepto can survive in the water and soil for weeks to months.  There are multiple forms (serovars) of Lepto.  Lepto is found in all 50 states.  The World Health Organization states that very little is known about the true incidence of Leptospirosis worldwide.

Signs of lepto in dogs are fever, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, anorexia, weakness, depression, stiffness, severe muscle pain, and jaundice from liver failure.   Time from exposure to clinical signs can range from a few days to a month.  Lepto can be shed in the urine for up to 3 months after infection, especially if not treated appropriately.  Clinical signs in people include kidney disease, meningitis, liver failure, and respiratory distress.

There are vaccinations available for dogs, although the current vaccines only cover 4 of the serovars.  In the most recent vaccine guidelines, the lepto vaccine is considered a lifestyle vaccine.  That means that veterinarians may make recommendations based on each dog’s risk of exposure. Lepto is the “L” part of the distemper vaccine.   The vaccine needs a series of shots to start, and then is a yearly vaccine thereafter.  Contrary to the old wives’ tale, lepto does not cause vaccine reactions.  We have many people who come in to the office with the recommendation from their breeder not to vaccinate for lepto.  When a vaccine reaction does happen (about 1 in 10,000 vaccines), it is caused by the adjuvant in the vaccines.  Adjuvants are the liquid part of the vaccine that contains material used to stimulate the immune system.

I encourage everyone to ask their veterinarian about the lepto vaccine, and come up with vaccine schedule that best suits your dog’s lifestyle.  And yes, my dog is vaccinated for lepto!


Ann E. Bastian, V.M.D.


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