By Lisa Kava
A local vet is raising awareness about a bacterial disease called Leptospirosis, which has been spreading and infecting dogs on the Upper West Side. The city says that reported cases have not increased, but vets tell us that they have seen an increase in the number of dogs they treat with the disease.
Lepto is a serious disease transmitted into water sources through rat urine. Humans and dogs can both be affected. One person was killed and two others were sickened by lepto in the Bronx last winter. Dr. Kim Rosenthal from West Side Vet told us she’s seen a sudden increase. “Prior to September 2016 the only case of lepto that I had ever seen in 30 years as a vet in NYC was one dog that went swimming in the lake in Central Park where the rowboats are. The rats come out at night and drink and urinate and the water is full of lepto.”
“Starting last fall, a year ago September, I saw my first case which was one of many that followed. It took two and a half weeks and an excess of $20,000 to save this dog. The dogs go into full liver failure and full renal failure. We are now telling all of our patients to vaccinate their dogs against leptospirosis. It is a no brainer. We are not seeing reactions to this vaccine. We sent out a notice in September, October and November.”
West Side Vet sent a note to every client this fall about the importance of this vaccine. “You do not have to see or bite a rat to get lepto. It is transmitted through mucous membranes. If your dog sniffs in the nose, in the lips, on the gums, that is all it takes. It can be fatal to dogs, it can be fatal to people.” The lepto vaccine is a yearly vaccine, the first one comes with a booster 2-4 weeks later.
One local dog owner told West Side Rag that her dog (shown above) was nearly killed by lepto a few weeks ago. The dog was not yet vaccinated because he was a puppy. He was diagnosed with lepto a few weeks ago after walking in Joan of Arc Park. The dog went into liver failure, according to his owner. He was lethargic, vomiting and needed to be quarantined. “We had almost $10,000 in vet bills,” she said. “BluePearl Midtown did a wonderful job saving our dog these past several days. Thankfully he pulled through, but clearly the city has not done much since the last rat outbreak and the funding in September.”
The owner noted that she needed to go on preventative antibiotics so as not to catch the disease from her dog (by touching his vomit, cleaning up after him). “Our vet said there has been an increase in lepto cases in the past few weeks…The rat problem in the neighborhood is very obvious. It is disgusting. You hear them screaming at night, digging holes every day and see them running on the street.”
Rats have been a persistent problem on the Upper West Side, but the rodents appear to have spread and gotten more bold over the past few months. On Sept 28th Mayor De Blasio announced a $750,000 investment to tackle rat hot spots on the Upper West Side.
Dr. Richard Goldstein, the Chief Medical Officer at the Animal Medical Center, and a recognized leptospirosis expert, said in an interview that there are about 50 case of canine lepto in NYC each year. They are all dogs that have never been vaccinated. He says there have been 2-5 cases in humans each year and that there is no vaccine for humans as the technology is not yet there. The disease is usually transmitted directly from rodents to people, not dogs to people, according to Dr Goldstein. It can be from walking barefoot where rats have urinated. As for dogs, Dr. Goldstein believes that the lepto vaccine should be a core vaccine given by all vets and that every dog in NYC should get this vaccine as every dog has the potential to be exposed. “I believe in New York City right now lepto vaccines are standard of care. We rarely if ever see a vaccinated dog get the disease.”
Dr. Goldstein noted that historically the ability to diagnose lepto was difficult but that today there are brand new tests. He also pointed out that the vaccine in the last 12 years has gotten much better and is very safe. “Any risk associated with getting the vaccine is nothing compared to the disease.” Dr. Goldstein also mentioned that raccoons are a big culprit in carrying the disease and that a raccoon in Central Park has a 50% chance of carrying lepto.
When asked if he has seen an increase in lepto cases in dogs recently in NYC, Dr Goldstein replied “There is definitely an increased level of diagnosis. Some of that is related to the increase in rat population but some of it is also increased awareness and better understanding of what the disease looks like. It is hard to separate an increase and an awareness.”
Carolina Rodriguez, Deputy Press Secretary for the NYC Department of Health, said in a statement that “Over the years the Health Department has worked closely with the community and elected officials to address the rat population on the Upper West Side, including a recent investment of $750,000. Additionally, this year we have seen no evidence of an increase in canine or human leptospirosis cases in the City or in the West Side of Manhattan.” Stats she sent to us show that only two cases have been reported in Manhattan this year.
Its not clear, however, that people whose pets have been impacted by lepto are reporting that to the city. One vet told us that dog owners and vets do not always report canine lepto cases to the DOH. The department requires leptospirosis cases to be reported to them by phone or fax within 24 hours of laboratory diagnosis in order to be recorded. Within the first 24 hours of diagnosis, reporting to the DOH may be low on the priority list for dog owners and vets.
Rodriguez said that the Health Department is working closely with Council Member Helen Rosenthal to implement strategies to reduce rat activity in the neighborhood, including walkthroughs to identify hot spots in the district. They hosted a Rat Academy in September that provided neighborhood residents, property owners, managers and staff the best information available on preventing and managing rodents. The DOH plans to hold another training Rat Academy on a future date, the trainings are free and open to all New Yorkers. They are also “actively baiting in the rat reservoir areas of the neighborhood, including Riverside Park, Central Park and Theodore Roosevelt Parks, as well as in private properties and public spaces such as the Broadway Mall.”
Rosenthal’s office noted that “The (rat) issue is one that her office is on top of all of the time.” New “rat-proof” garbage bins are being placed in Riverside Park and trash pickups have been increased, for instance.
Dr. Kim Rosenthal says “ Hopefully the city will start to get on top of the rat situation. Hopefully we have a crazy cold winter and the rat population will be decreased.”
In the meantime please be sure to vaccinate your dogs, stay away from rats and puddles in the park and spread awareness!