What Is Leptospirosis, The Rare Disease That Can Be Spread From Animals to Humans?

A rare bacterial disease has been found in some dogs in the US—and it has the potential to spread to humans.

According to People, a puppy in Oklahoma was recently treated for a potentially deadly bacterial disease called Leptospirosis. The zoonotic disease—which means it can spread from animals to humans—was also found about a month ago in Utah after an infected dog was believed to have started an outbreak at a kennel, sickening at least 13 dogs, according to news station KUTV. 

Sarah Norman, the veterinarian who treated the Oklahoma puppy, told news station KOCO that the puppy "was not eating well, vomiting and had a yellow tint that you could tell the liver was affected," per People. She added that, in animals, the disease can cause kidney and liver failure. 

What exactly is Leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease spread through the urine of an infected animal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it’s not just dogs that carry the disease; it can also be spread by cattle, pigs, horses, rats, and other wild animals. The infection can also get into water and soil, and survive there for weeks to months. 

Humans can become infected with the bacterial disease through contact with urine or other bodily fluids from infected animals—typically through the mucous membranes, like the eyes, nose, or mouth; or broken skin like a cut or a scratch—as well as contact with water, soil, or food contaminated with the urine of infected animals. Person-to-person transmission, however, is rare, per the CDC.

Leptospirosis can be difficult to diagnose in humans because it shares symptoms with other diseases—and some infected people don’t have any symptoms at all. When someone does show symtpoms, they can include high fever, headache, vomiting, and jaundice, among others, according to the CDC. Typically, an infected person gets sick two days to four weeks after contact with a contaminated source, and the disease may last for a few days up to several weeks.

Fortunately, Leptospirosis is easy to treat with antibiotics. However, if it’s not treated, it can lead to meningitis, kidney damage, liver failure or respiratory disease. In severe cases, it can be fatal, per the CDC.

Infected dogs are likely to have been in contact with water contaminated by rat urine, typically by swimming in standing water or drinking from puddles, per the American Kennel Club. It’s difficult to stop your dog doing either of those things, but you can get them vaccinated to protect them (and you) against the disease. While there’s still a chance a vaccinated dog will get infected, the disease is likely to be much milder. And to prevent the spread of Leptospirosis, it’s good practice to wear protective clothing or footwear during exposure to potentially contaminated soil or water, and to avoid urine and other bodily fluids from infected dogs.

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