Leptospirosis in Dogs

Leptospirosis is a spiral bacterium that can infect animals and sometimes humans. Lepto can cause kidney and liver issues in pets and embryo death or late-term abortions in pregnant dogs.

How Do Dogs Get Leptospirosis?

Animals with Lepto shed live bacteria in their urine. Wild animals, such as raccoons and rodents, can be carriers of the disease, meaning they shed the bacteria but don’t show clinical signs of lepto. Most infections come from contact with water that is contaminated with infected urine. Lepto hates dry environments and is short-lived in a desert environment; therefore, watering holes become the main source of infection in dry areas. Exercise yards with Lepto-infected water that washes downhill into puddles can be a big source of infection.

Signs of Lepto in Dogs

In a kennel, Lepto is not often noticed or diagnosed, unless you are looking for solutions to puppy death – one or two stillborn puppies or a puppy that dies shortly after birth usually isn’t sent for diagnostics. When these losses happen in first or second-time mothers, Lepto may be causing the issue. Older mothers don’t often lose puppies because these mothers get enough natural immunity from infection, preventing loss in later litters.

Clinical signs of Leptospirosis in dogs may include lethargy, muscle and joint pain, poor appetite and dehydration. Leptospirosis in dogs targets the kidneys, liver, and blood vessels, so acute infections can cause kidney failure, vomiting, dehydration, bleeding, and jaundice. Generally, kidney and liver issues are not seen with abortions, but they are seen when a non-pregnant dog becomes infected. Symptoms of pneumonia may also suggest the dog has a Lepto infection.

Lepto abortion storms have been occurring with increased frequency. Some kennels have abandoned Lepto vaccination, which has led to a population of animals with no Lepto protection. These abortions affect all females (old or young), and they might abort whole litters in late gestation. Fetus abortion during the last 14 days of pregnancy is suspicious of Lepto. Often when Lepto abortion happens, we have several females bred, and they will all abort if we do not increase immunity. Vaccination of the whole kennel to attain herd immunity will shut the issue down but not before major loss of puppies. If wild Lepto is on board, vaccination of a pregnant dog will not prevent litter loss.

Is a Lepto Vaccination Necessary for Dogs?

Dogs are generally vaccinated for Leptospirosis once a year with a combination vaccine. When you’re deciding if a Lepto vaccination is appropriate for your dogs, you should evaluate the value of protection against Lepto exposure. Prevention against Lepto is important for breeding dogs on the ground or using exercise yards; however, the Lepto vaccine is more reactive and does increase the risk of reactions to the vaccination.

There are combination vaccines that include protection against lepto. Using the Revival Vaccine Finder can help you determine if your dog needs lepto protection.

How Do You Diagnose Leptospirosis in Dogs

Diagnosis of Lepto is usually based on clinical signs. Titers on any dog, or on unvaccinated mothers after abortion can be diagnostic. If they have a titer and are not vaccinated, you have the cause.

Culturing Lepto bacteria is difficult and often unsuccessful, though new techniques have had improved results.PCR testing of urine, prior to initiating antibiotic treatment, can allow for the earliest detection of the disease.

Leptospirosis in Dogs Treatment

Treatment of Leptospirosis involves IV fluids, antibiotics such as Penicillin or Doxycycline, and occasionally blood transfusions. Animals with low levels of the organism still carry and shed Leptospira without clinical disease. These carrier infections are difficult to identify. Treatment is important to prevent carriers, even if it looks like the animal has recovered. Infected carriers are a constant source of infection to other animals.

How to Prevent Leptospirosis in Dogs

You can prevent Leptospirosis in dogs by limiting wildlife and rodent access in dog enclosures. Limit the brush and tall grass around the kennel and put a fence around the perimeter to discourage the wildlife carriers.

Contaminated standing water is the main source of spread, so kennel designs need to be sloped to limit the amount of standing water. Raised decks and flooring, such as Kennel Deck or Dri-Dek®, are also helpful for keeping dogs off of the wet ground. Lepto thrives in wet, moist environments, but has a short life in dry, arid locations, so your environment will help you determine the best approach for preventing Lepto in your kennel.

Vaccination against Lepto is also an important tool for preventing puppy loss and adult infection. All first-time moms should be vaccinated BEFORE breeding to elevate immunity with the goal of preventing Lepto losses. If mom’s Lepto immunity is solid, she rarely aborts the litter!

If you want help developing the best prevention and treatment plan for leptospirosis in dogs, call us at 800.786.4751.

Article originally written by Donald Bramlage, DVM, Revival’s Former Director of Veterinary Services. This article has been updated/reviewed by Dr. Greer.

Written by: Marty Greer, DVM

Director of Veterinary Services

Marty Greer, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, has 40+ years’ experience in veterinary medicine, with special interests in canine reproduction and pediatrics. She received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Iowa State University in 1981. She’s served as Revival’s Director of Veterinary Services since 2019. In 2023, Dr. Greer was named the Westminster Kennel Club Veterinarian of the Year.

If you need help, call us at 800.786.4751.