Leptospirosis is a disease caused by the bacteria Leptospira. The disease is spread through contact with water, soil or food contaminated by urine from infected animals. Leptospirosis is a disease that can affect humans and animals, including your pets. All animals can potentially become infected with leptospirosis. While for many years occurrence among pets was rare, the disease has been diagnosed more frequently in the past few years.
The bacteria that cause leptospirosis are spread through the urine of infected animals, which can get into water or soil and can survive there for weeks to months. Humans and animals can become infected through contact with this contaminated urine (or other body fluids, except saliva), water, or soil.
The bacteria can enter the body through skin or mucous membranes (eyes, nose, or mouth), especially if the skin is broken from a cut or scratch. Drinking contaminated water can also cause infection. Infected wild and domestic animals may continue to excrete the bacteria into the environment continuously or every once in a while for a few months up to several years.
If your pet has become infected, it most likely came into contact with the bacteria in the environment or was exposed to infected animals. Your pet may have been drinking, swimming, or walking through contaminated water. Due to increased development of rural areas, pets may be exposed to more wildlife, such as raccoons, skunks, squirrels, opossums, or deer that are infected with leptospirosis. Dogs also may pass the disease to each other, but this happens very rarely.
Signs and Symptoms
- Symptoms can appear between two days and four weeks after contact with bacteria
- Common symptoms in humans include fever, headache, chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle pain, skin rash and eye infection. In rare circumstances there may be more severe symptoms of kidney failure, liver failure or meningitis.
- The illness may last from a few days to 3 weeks or longer. Without treatment recovery may take several months.
- Common symptoms in dogs include fever, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, refusal to eat, severe weakness or depression, stiffness, severe muscle pain, inability to have puppies (generally younger animals are more seriously affected than older animals)
Antibiotics can be administered to reduce the length and severity of infection in humans and pets.
Prevention in Humans
Consult a health care provider or visit a travel health clinic preferably six weeks before you travel.
Take precautions to avoid exposure to water that may be contaminated
- Avoid swimming or bathing in:
- polluted or contaminated waters
- flood waters
- Cover cuts, wounds and scrapes with water-tight dressings or bandages before entering the water
- Always practice safe water precautions
- Wear clothing and footwear that protect you when walking or working in water or wet soil.
- If your job puts you at greater risk (e.g. you work with animals or work outdoors), wear appropriate protective gear such as goggles, gloves and boots
Practice personal hygiene and wash your hands frequently
- Wash your hands with soap under warm running water for at least 20 seconds, as often as possible. Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available. It's a good idea to always keep some with you when you travel
Avoid contact with wild and domestic animals, particularly rodents
- Make sure that garbage is removed from campsites and dwellings
- Avoid accommodations where rodents can get in
Pet owner protection
Pet owners should also take steps to protect themselves and others from becoming infected with the disease due to an infected pet. The primary mode of transmission of leptospirosis from pets to humans is through direct or indirect contact with contaminated animal tissues, organs, or urine. Normal daily activities with your pet do not put you at a great risk of developing leptospirosis.
Caring for an infected pet:
- Do not handle or come in contact with urine, blood, or tissues from your infected pet before it has received proper treatment.
- If you need to have contact with animal tissues or urine, wear protective clothing, such as gloves and boots, especially if you are occupationally at risk (e.g. veterinarians, farm workers, and sewer workers) and wash your hands after removing gloves.
- As a general rule, always wash your hands after handling your pet or anything that might have your pet's excrement on it.
- If you are cleaning surfaces that may be contaminated or have urine from an infected pet on them, use an antibacterial cleaning solution or a solution of one part household bleach in 10 parts water.
- Make sure that your infected pet takes all of its medicine and follow up with your veterinarian.
Discuss the benefits of taking preventive medication (pre-exposure prophylaxis) with a health care professional before departure
- Travellers at high risk of exposure include humanitarian workers, veterinarians, farmers, etc.
- No medication is 100% effective in preventing the disease
- There is no human vaccine licensed for use in Canada
Monitor your health
- If you develop symptoms similar to leptospirosis when you are travelling or after you return, see a health care provider and tell them where you have been travelling or living
Prevention in Pets
Get your pet vaccinated against leptospirosis. Speak to your vet regarding vaccines for your pet.
To help prevent leptospirosis infection, keep rodent problems (rats, mice, or other animal pests) under control. Rodents can carry and spread the bacteria that cause this disease.
Contact your veterinarian and your physician if you have concerns about a possible exposure to an infected animal, or if your pet is displaying signs and symptoms of infection. Your veterinarian can perform tests to determine whether or not your pet has the disease.