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When you take your dog to the veterinarian for annual vaccinations, your vet might ask about giving your dog a leptospirosis vaccine. You might spend a moment wondering what in the world that is. Especially when your dog is already getting core vaccines like distemper, parvo, and rabies. If your dog spends time outside, particularly swimming in ponds or rolling around in the mud, you would do well to really consider the protection it offers. 

What is Leptospirosis? 

Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection caused by an organism that has a very characteristic spiral shape, Leptospira. This bacteria can be found around the world, but it is more common in some areas than others. Thus, your veterinarian may make recommendations based on where you live or travel.  There are numerous strains and not all are associated with disease in every species.

Transmission and Symptoms

While not all cases are severe, leptospirosis can be deadly, especially if it is not caught quickly. While it tends to be relatively uncommon in cats, dogs can readily be infected. It has also been detected in cows, goats, and horses, as well as a variety of wildlife. Wildlife is a major reservoir for this infection. In agricultural regions, cows may be a common host. Unfortunately, humans may also develop an infection after exposure.

The bacteria is usually transmitted through urine but it can accumulate in areas such as water run-off and ponds. It can thrive for quite some time in these moist regions, so just because your dog doesn’t play with wildlife doesn’t mean he isn´t at risk.

While in people, early symptoms may be flu-like signs, dogs can develop urinary issues, diarrhoea, depression, and lethargy. The bacteria generally causes damage to the kidneys and liver, so some people notice jaundice in their pet’s sclera or gums. Some dogs may actually recover from their initial infection but retain low numbers of bacteria within their kidneys: these dogs may actually become carriers and spread the infection on to other pets and people.


Diagnosing your dog with a leptospirosis infection can be tricky because it doesn’t show up on routine diagnostic tests. Your veterinarian may suspect it, particularly if both liver and kidney enzyme values are elevated on blood work. Especially if baseline blood work has historically been unremarkable. A urinalysis may indicate evidence of kidney damage. 

More concrete diagnostic testing is available but is less widespread. There are SNAP tests that your veterinarian may have in the hospital that can detect leptospirosis in many cases. However, many veterinarians need to submit a sample for testing to a diagnostic laboratory. DNA PCR testing is one method, but it is not very effective if your dog has already started on antibiotics. 

Treatment for Leptospirosis

The great news with leptospirosis is that, even though it can be so disastrous, it can be treated with antibiotics. The bad news is that pets that have a severe infection may already have organ damage that cannot be reversed. Hospitalization with IV fluid therapy and care are needed in many acute cases. 

Dogs may need to be treated for both acute infections and carrier states. Typically penicillin antibiotics are used for initial treatment, including amoxicillin. To clear carrier infections, your veterinarian may prescribe a fluoroquinolone antibiotic or tetracycline, such as ciprofloxacin or doxycycline, respectively. Complete the entire course of therapy that is prescribed. 

If your dog has been diagnosed with leptospirosis, you need to keep them away from other animals and ensure no one gets infected while they are treated. You should handle your pet with disposable gloves and a mask, as this bacteria can sometimes be transmitted when it is aerosolized. Anywhere they urinate or defecate should be carefully disinfected with specific chemicals that are labelled for destroying the bacteria.

Vaccinating for Leptospirosis and Preventing Infection

If leptospirosis is prevalent in your area, your veterinarian will likely recommend vaccination as a means of helping prevent disease in your dog. They typically need to be boostered annually. It is important to keep in mind that the vaccines do not protect against every strain. Furthermore, they may not prevent disease completely, instead, they are limiting its severity. Vaccines are not available for cats though.

A major method of prevention is rodent control. Because your dog may be exposed to rat or mice urine, keeping populations of these animals down is important. If you detect evidence of a rodent problem around your home, work with an exterminator on safe and effective ways to protect your pets. 

You may also consider limiting your pet from playing in areas with water accumulation, such as rivers, ponds, and even puddles. Going swimming in a pool is generally a safer proposition. 

If you are concerned about possible exposure, you should discuss the situation with your veterinarian to determine if titer testing is needed for your pet. Make sure you also communicate with your family physician about any exposure to protect yourself as well.

In Summary

Leptospirosis can be a scary diagnosis, but you can do your part to help protect your pet. Discuss your pet’s lifestyle with your veterinarian to determine if vaccinating is a good idea, particularly in young dogs or immunocompromised ones. It can easily become part of your pet’s routine preventative care.


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