About Leptospirosis

Key points

  • Leptospirosis is a disease caused by bacteria that affects people and animals.
  • It's spread in the urine (pee) of infected animals.
  • Leptospirosis risk often increases after a hurricane or flood when people have contact with contaminated water or soil.
  • If you or your animals may have leptospirosis, see a healthcare provider.


Leptospirosis is a disease caused by the bacterium Leptospira that can be found in contaminated water or soil. It affects many different kinds of animals and people.

Without treatment, leptospirosis in people can lead to kidney damage, meningitis (inflammation of the membrane around the brain and spinal cord), liver failure, trouble breathing, and even death.

About 1 million cases in people occur around the world each year, with nearly 60,000 deaths. Leptospirosis has been reported throughout the United States.

Just like people, animals can become infected through contact with contaminated urine or other body fluids in water or soil. Signs and symptoms in infected animals can vary widely, and some animals don't show symptoms at all.

Signs and symptoms

In people, leptospirosis can cause a wide range of symptoms, including:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Body or muscle aches
  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Yellowed skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • Red eyes
  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Rash

Many of these symptoms can be mistaken for other diseases. Some people have no symptoms.

It generally takes 2-30 days to get sick after having contact with the bacteria that cause leptospirosis. The disease may occur in two phases:

  • In the first phase, people may have fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, vomiting, or diarrhea. The person may feel better for a while but become ill again.
  • Some people may suffer a more severe second phase with kidney or liver failure, or inflammation of the membrane around the brain and spinal cord (meningitis).

The illness can last from a few days to several weeks. Without treatment, getting better may take several months.

If you think you may have leptospirosis, see a healthcare provider right away so that they can run tests and start you on effective medicine to treat it.

Exposure risks

The bacteria that cause leptospirosis are spread through the urine (pee) of infected animals. The bacteria can survive in contaminated water or soil for weeks to months. Many different kinds of wild and domestic animals carry the bacteria, including:

  • Livestock (cows, pigs, horses, sheep, goats, etc,)
  • Dogs
  • Cats
  • Rodents (rats, mice, etc.)
  • Marine mammals (sea lions, seals, etc.)
  • Wild animals (zoo animals, wild pigs, etc.)

When these animals are infected, they may have no symptoms of the disease. Infected animals may continue to urinate the bacteria into the environment for several months or years.

It's rare for people to spread leptospirosis to other people.

People can become infected through:

  • Contact with water or soil containing urine or body fluids from infected animals, especially after hurricanes, flooding, or heavy rainfall.
  • Directly touching body fluids from an infected animal.
  • Eating food or drinking water contaminated by the urine of an infected animal.

If you're involved in activities that put you in contact with water, soil or animals, you may be at increased risk for infection. These activities include:

  • Water recreation like swimming, kayaking, canoeing, or rafting in rivers, swamps, or creeks
  • Hiking or hunting
  • Gardening, yardwork, outdoor cleaning and maintenance
  • Jobs like working at a veterinary clinic, dairy farming, or butchering

If you are experiencing homelessness or living in a shelter or other facility that has a lot of people living closely together, you may also have a higher risk of getting leptospirosis.

Leptospirosis and Flooding‎

Everyone's risk for leptospirosis is higher after hurricanes, heavy rain, or flooding. Animal urine in the soil and other surfaces can get into floodwater or rainwater, contaminating them and other natural water sources like streams. People may be exposed to contaminated water or use it for drinking or bathing.


Lower your risk of getting leptospirosis:

  • Don't swim or wade in water that might be contaminated with animal urine, especially after hurricanes, floods, or heavy rainfall.
  • Avoid contact with animals that may be infected.
  • Cover your cuts or scratches with waterproof bandages.
  • Wear waterproof protective clothing, shoes or boots near floodwater or other water or soil that may be contaminated with animal urine.

If you take part in water recreation activities like swimming, boating, fishing, and adventure racing, some tips to avoid leptospirosis include:

  • Research the location you'll be in the water for possible leptospirosis infections for that area. In the US, check your local health department. If you're traveling internationally, check CDC Traveler's Health.
  • Cover scrapes and wounds with waterproof bandaging and wear shoes if leptospirosis or other diseases are known in the area.

If you may be exposed as a result of your job (veterinarians, veterinary staff, raising farm animals, dairy workers, animal control, butcher or slaughterhouse workers, sewage and sanitation workers, military and first responders):

  • Wash hands frequently
  • Use personal protective equipment (gloves, footwear, eye protection)
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces and equipment
  • Vaccinate animals against leptospirosis, and isolate sick animals
  • Control the rodent population around your work area

Treatment and recovery

Leptospirosis is treated with antibiotics, such as doxycycline or penicillin. Antibiotics should be given as early as possible if a healthcare professional thinks you may have leptospirosis.

Intravenous (IV) antibiotics may be needed for people who have more severe leptospirosis symptoms.

Early treatment with antibiotics may help prevent severe illness and decrease how long you're sick.