Leptospirosis is an infectious disease caused by a type of bacteria called a spirochete. It is one of the most common zoonotic (transmittable from animals to humans) diseases in the world. In dogs it is known as Canicola Disease while in people it may be known as Swamp Fever, Mud Fever, Swineherd’s Disease and Rice Field Disease. Leptospirosis in humans that is associated with liver and kidney disease is known as Weil’s syndrome. Weil’s syndrome is characterized by yellowing of the eyes (jaundice) and can lead to kidney disease and other serious organ conditions.
There are over 200 strains of Leptospirosis, 4 of which commonly infect dogs. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 100-200 cases of leptospirosis are reported each year in the United States, with about 50% of cases occurring in Hawaii.
The disease is transmitted by an organism that is passed in the urine of infected animals. The infectious organism may be passed for weeks or months and infects a victim when they come in contact with infected soil or water. People can contract the disease by ingesting contaminated food or water, through skin lesions and mucous membranes (eyes, nose, sinuses, and mouth) and even sniffing contaminated soil can cause infection. The risk of infection is greatly increased with the presence of breaks in the skin, as this allows the bacteria to easily enter the body if contact with infected soil or water occurs. The Leptospira organism thrives in moist areas with mild climates and can be transmitted by animals such as rats, skunks, opossums, raccoons, foxes, and other rodents.
Symptoms of the disease may become noticeable from two to 25 days after the initial direct exposure. Symptoms in dogs may include depression, fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, weakness, muscle aches, stiffness, abdominal pain, bloody urine, meningitis, eye inflammation, abortions, infertility, jaundice and even shock and death. In people, these symptoms include fever, chills, headache and muscle aches, vomiting and diarrhea, and even spontaneous abortion in pregnant women. Most at risk are veterinarians, pet shop owners, sewage workers, and farm employees as well as people participating in outdoor sporting activities such canoeing, rafting, hiking, and camping, as they may come in contact with contaminated water or soil. It is possible for human patients to recover and then become ill again. Fortunately, only a small percentage of cases (10%) result in serious illness such as liver failure, kidney failure, or meningitis.
Dogs that have contracted Leptospirosis are often misdiagnosed due to the fact that symptoms may mimic other common ailments. As well, some dogs may never show obvious signs of the disease. Therefore, multiple and repeated clinical test may be required in order to receive a positive diagnosis for the disease.
The best prevention for dogs is vaccination (cats are not often affected and so no vaccine exists for them). However, protection against one strain does not mean protection against another strain. As well, being vaccinated does not guarantee protection. Certain vaccines may provide protection for only two strains while others for all four common types. The protection that is provided by a vaccine will last only 6-8 months therefore dogs should be re-vaccinated every year or, in the case of a high risk area, every 6 months.
The best overall protection for both animals and people is education and vaccination of pets. As well, it is important for pet professionals and owners with an infected animal to clean and disinfect all surfaces frequently and to wash their hands and arms after handling an animal.
If you suspect your pet has contracted Leptospirosis, be sure to take him or her to a veterinarian for testing and treatment, as early antibiotic treatment can limit or prevent organ damage.
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