Leptospirosis was once considered a rural issue, as dogs typically got this disease through contact with the urine of infected wildlife and farm animals. However, several large outbreaks have been reported in cities recently, including in Los Angeles, New York, and Phoenix. In the New York City outbreak, it was believed that rats were spreading the disease, but in Los Angeles, research showed that some dogs may have gotten Lepto while in large group settings, such as at a boarding kennel or dog parks.
This is especially worrisome because Lepto can be a serious disease that can lead to lifelong health conditions and even death. It is also a zoonotic disease, which means that it can also be passed on to humans by dogs.
What is Leptospirosis?
Lepto is caused by the bacteria Leptospira, which can live for weeks (even months) in warm, standing water or in moist soil. Canines can get Lepto in several ways, including by drinking, wading, or swimming in water that has been contaminated with this spiral-shaped bacterium. It's also possible for a dog to get Lepto by coming into direct contact with the urine from an infected animal. This is especially true if a dog has a cut or an open wound through which the bacteria can enter the bloodstream. Leptospira can also enter a pet's body through the eyes, nose, or mouth.
Once the bacterium enters a dog's bloodstream, it will begin to reproduce in the organs, including the liver and kidneys. If a dog has symptoms, they will typically show up between four and twelve days after exposure. In some cases, though, it can take 30 days or more for a pet to be symptomatic.
Some dogs with Lepto may appear to have a flu-like illness. Other canines will display no symptoms, while still others will become extremely ill. Lepto can be especially severe for puppies under six months of age. Symptoms can also vary greatly depending on what organs have been affected by the disease.
The following are some of the common symptoms of Lepto:
Lack of appetite
Increased or decreased urination
Increased or decreased water consumption
Severe Lepto infections can cause major organ damage and even death, especially in puppies. In fact, of the 201 cases reported in the Los Angeles County outbreak, 55% of the dogs were hospitalized and 13 died.
Because the symptoms of Leptospirosis resemble so many other diseases, it can be difficult to make a diagnosis. If Lepto is suspected, a veterinarian may recommend several tests, including a blood count, a blood test, and a urinalysis. If these tests indicate that a dog may be infected with Lepto, the veterinarian may then request a PCR test that can detect the Leptospiral DNA, as well as a test for the presence of antibodies.
Treatment options and recovery
In most cases, Lepto can be treated effectively with antibiotics, such as Amoxicillin or Doxycycline. Severely infected dogs, though, may require hospitalization, sometimes up to 10 days. With appropriate treatment, 50-90% of the dogs requiring hospitalization will survive.
Unfortunately, Lepto can have long-term consequences. It can, for instance, cause permanent damage to a dog's kidneys or liver, which could require lifelong medical treatment and testing. For example, if a canine's kidneys are damaged by Lepto, they might need dialysis treatment(s) and/or intravenous fluids. Dogs with kidney damage may also need to undergo periodic testing to check that these organs are functioning properly and may also need to go on a special diet.
Cost of Leptospirosis treatment for dogs
The cost to treat Lepto can vary greatly, depending on various factors, including whether a pet's kidneys or liver have been damaged. In addition, a very sick dog may require treatment in an animal hospital for a long period of time. The average cost of treatment for Lepto is about $2,000, but it can skyrocket quickly if the dog has to be hospitalized for multiple days or has developed any life-long issues.
Does pet insurance cover Leptospirosis?
As long as a pet was enrolled before they were infected, most plans will cover much of the cost of treating this disease and related health conditions. If an owner purchases a plan after their dog has already had Lepto, and they develop a condition that could be attributed to this disease, the insurance company may deny coverage. That is one reason if you're going to purchase coverage for your pet, it's important to do so as soon as possible. Pet owners should always check their policies for specific details.
Leptospirosis prevention in dogs
Pet owners can take the following steps to protect their dogs from Leptospirosis.
Avoid areas with standing water or where the soil is moist or wet.
Don't let your pet drink from or swim in bodies of water that could be contaminated with Lepto.
Limit exposure to farm animals or wild animals whenever possible.
Avoid areas where rats or mice might live, such as near garbage cans in the city.
Vaccinate your dog. (The vaccine provides protection against several, but not all strains of Lepto. Even so, many experts recommend having dogs vaccinated against this disease.)
Most basic pet insurance plans do not cover the cost of the Lepto vaccine for dogs. However, some wellness plans, like Figo's Wellness Powerup, can help cover the cost of preventative care and vaccines. If you live in an area experiencing a spike in Lepto cases, particularly in a big city, you may want to consider adding wellness to your plan so as to prevent any issues before they occur.
Early treatment is key
If it is suspected that a dog has Lepto, it is vital to take them to the veterinarian immediately for diagnosis and treatment. Early treatment will give a dog their best chance for a full recovery.
Lizz Caputo is a Content Strategist at Figo, animal enthusiast, and owner of a rescued senior American Bully. Her hobbies include checking out new restaurants in her area, boxing, and petting dogs of all shapes and sizes.