Leptospirosis, or lepto, is a bacterial disease that was typically associated with farm dogs and other dogs exposed to ponds, creeks, and other water bodies. However, lepto can infect almost every mammal, including people and cats, and creates a varied range of illness signs. In the past, experts believed cats were not susceptible to infection, but the thought now is that lepto may play a role in kidney disease. Since lepto can be contracted by your cat, dog, or yourself, understanding disease transmission and knowing how to keep your entire family safe from harm is critical. 

How do pets contract leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis is carried by wildlife, such as rats, raccoons, opossums, skunks, squirrels, and deer, and shed in their urine. The bacteria can contaminate anywhere these animals urinate, including lakes, streams, puddles, or your backyard soil, but lepto is no longer only a rural dog’s issue. Since so many species carry the disease, and urbanization is encroaching on wildlife habitat, more and more city pets are exposed. Any dog who ventures outdoors is potentially at risk of contracting this disease, and they can pass it on to you and your indoor cat.

What are the signs of leptospirosis in pets?

Leptospirosis signs in pets vary and are nonspecific—some pets may have no signs at all. Some of the most common signs include:

  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Refusal to eat
  • Severe weakness and depression
  • Stiffness
  • Severe muscle pain
  • Excessive thirst and urination
  • Jaundice

Generally, younger animals are more seriously affected than older ones. If you suspect that your pet has lepto, handle them with caution, since the bacteria can be passed to you through blood or urine. 

How will I know if my pet has leptospirosis?

The most common way to diagnose leptospirosis is by using serologic testing called a MAT (i.e., microscopic agglutination test) to find whether the pet’s antibody levels have increased over time. A single antibody test may be positive because of past exposure to the bacteria or vaccination. Because of this potential for misinterpreted results, the test is often repeated two to four weeks after a suspected leptospirosis infection to confirm the diagnosis.

Leptospirosis signs are vague and can be confused with many other diseases, which makes specialized testing vital for a correct diagnosis. Your family veterinarian may also perform blood work, a urinalysis, and X-rays to check for various other conditions and rule out potential concurrent infections. 

How is leptospirosis treated in my pet?

Pets diagnosed with lepto receive supportive nursing care as they recover from the bacterial infection. While waiting on confirmation of a lepto diagnosis, antibiotic therapy will begin. Hospitalization with intravenous (IV) fluids, antiemetics, gastroprotectants, and liver support medications may be necessary to support the kidneys and liver. Pets with mild clinical signs or in the early disease stages have the best prognosis, while pets with severe kidney or liver damage may have a poor prognosis. 

Why am I also at risk for leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted from pets to people. You can become infected with lepto by cleaning up blood or urine from your infected pet, or by swimming in contaminated water bodies. Zoonotic infections are not common, but occupational exposure is a risk factor. The principle transmission route is through contact with infectious body fluids. If your pet is diagnosed with lepto, take proper precautions to avoid infection, since the bacteria can be shed in the urine for up to three months after initial infection. 

How can I protect my pet and my family from leptospirosis?

While leptospirosis can be lurking in your environment and carried by surrounding wildlife, several methods can help reduce the infection risk for your pet and family. Follow these tips:

  • Vaccinate your dog against leptospirosis — No human or feline version of a lepto vaccine is available, but you can vaccinate your dog for up to four leptospirosis serovars, or strains.  
  • Keep rodent populations under control — Get professional help if your property is home to mice, rats, and other small wild animals. Rodents can carry and spread the bacteria that causes lepto, as well as many other diseases and parasites. 
  • Do not handle your infected pet’s bodily fluids or tissues — If your pet has been diagnosed with lepto, avoid handling their urine, blood, or tissues until after they have received proper treatment.
  • Wear protective clothing — Wear gloves and wash your hands after cleaning up your pet’s messes, or handling your infected pet. 
  • Disinfect your home — Most disinfectants kill the bacteria, so use bleach or an antibacterial cleaning solution to sanitize your home and contaminated surfaces. 

If you suspect your pet may have lepto, begin taking precautions that will help protect your family  before receiving a diagnosis from your family veterinarian.

While your family veterinarian will likely be the one to diagnose your pet with leptospirosis, our Pet Emergency Clinic and Referral Center team is always here for urgent care, second opinions, or specialized internal medicine care. If your furry pal has a sudden fever, is vomiting, or drinking and urinating excessively, contact us for an appointment for prompt treatment.