Leptospirosis – What You Need To Know


by Shawn Bybee, DVM

As temperatures rise across the Wasatch Front, you may be getting out and exploring the various hiking trails in the area. Many hiking areas include streams, ponds, lakes and rivers. Before you let you pooch dive in and take a drink, you should be aware of an unusual infectious disease contracted through drinking contaminated water: Leptospirosis.

Beagle drinking water from a pond

Beagle drinking water from a pond

Leptospirosis is a disease from the bacteria Leptospira interrogans. There are many different types (called serovars) of the bacteria. Each type has its own host mammal where it lives within the kidneys. Many different mammals including deer, raccoons, rodents and skunks, can carry the bacteria.  When this animal urinates, the bacteria is shed in the urine which can contaminate a water source. If your dog happens to drink from this water source (pond, lake, stream, puddle, etc) or the bacteria gets in a wound, they could get infected. Cats may become infected with the bacteria, but it is not known if they get sick.

If your dog gets infected with Leptospira, the bacteria can cause kidney and liver failure. The signs are very non-specific and include decreased appetite, vomiting, lethargy and increased drinking and urinating. It can be treated successfully with antibiotics and fluid support if caught early. However, if the disease is not diagnosed, it can cause very serious illness. It is therefore very important to take your dog to your veterinarian if they are acting ill.

Lucky for us, leptospirosis is uncommon in Utah. Leptospira bacteria are very susceptible to environmental stress. It needs a moist and warm environment to survive. If it the bacteria dries out or freezes, it dies. These could be two reasons why the bacteria has yet to set a foothold in Utah. However, this bacteria – and the infection it causes – is increasing in the states surrounding us.

Another important factor to know about Leprospira is it’s zoonotic potential. A disease that is zoonotic is one that can spread from animals to humans. If your pet has leptospirosis, there is a small risk you could contract it if you were to somehow get their urine in a wound or in your mouth.

There is a vaccination available for the common types of Leptospira bacteria. I recommend it for dogs that drink or swim in lakes, ponds or streams, or travel with their owners to different states where the disease is more common. However, as with any vaccination, you should ask your veterinarian if your pet should receive it.

In summary, leptospirosis is an unusual infectious disease in Utah which causes kidney failure and liver failure which is contracted through drinking contaminated water. If your dog is sick and you often let them drink from natural sources of water, please notify your veterinarian. Testing for this bacteria may be warranted. For more information about leptospirosis, you can visit www.cdc.gov/leptospirosis/pets.


Dr. Bybee grew up in Bountiful, Utah and attended veterinary school at Colorado State University, where he graduated cum laude. Dr. Bybee’s professional interests include internal medicine (particularly endocrinology and minimally invasive procedures), ophthalmology, and pain relief. He is an associate veterinarian at University Veterinary Hospital and Diagnostic Center.