NYC Rat Patrol Finds Plethora of Disease: Is Your Pet at Risk?

October 22, 2014

ratHistorians believe rats arrived in the new world as stowaways on the sailing ships of explorers like Christopher Columbus.  These “colonist” rats brought diseases such a plague and typhus. A recently published study of rats in New York City “rats” on the veritable Noah’s Ark of organisms infecting these ubiquitous pests.

Scientists ratting on the rat
One hundred and thirty three NYC rats were collected for study. Samples of urine, feces and blood obtained from these rats were tested for the genetic material of bacteria, viruses and protozoa. For those organisms like E. coli, known to infect rats, humans and pets, very specific tests were performed to identify these pathogens. Several intestinal pathogens were found in the rats, in addition to E. coli, Clostridium and  Salmonella.

Another concerning, but not surprising bacteria found in the rats was LeptospiraLeptospira bacteria spreads to humans and dogs through the urine of infected rats. At The Animal Medical Center, we see a couple of canine patients a year with severe, life-threatening kidney failure from Ieptospirosis.

What wasn’t found
Nearly as interesting as the list of organisms that were identified, was the list of organisms not identified. One of the most deadly diseases carried by rats and having the ability to infect people and their pets is the plague. Reassuringly, not a single rat was infected with the plague causing bug, Yersinia pestis. Ditto for Listeria, a food borne illness, and Toxoplasma, a serious disease in pregnant women.

Some surprises
The Seoul hantavirus was identified in some of the study rats. This is a different version of the virus than the one carried by mice that caused the hantavirus outbreak in Yosemite National Park a couple of years ago. According to the recently published paper, the Seoul hantavirus has been identified in rats residing in other urban areas, but this is the first documented report of this virus in the Big Apple. Hantavirus appears to be a disease not spread to pets, and only to humans in rare cases.

The scientists screened the rat samples for previously unidentified viruses and found the genetic material of 18 new viral species. Most of these novel viruses are related to known viruses, but their clinical significance remains to be elucidated.

Why study rats?
Some might question why the despised rat is studied. Rat health and disease have important implications for our health and the health of our pets. In urban areas, rats live in close proximity to us, our pets and our food. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 75% of emerging diseases start in animals, so our future health and that of our pets may lie in the study of creatures like the rat.

International Health Papers: How to Avoid a Justin Bieber Epic Fail

May 21, 2013
Justin Bieber and Mally

Justin Bieber and Mally

International travel with pets is a complicated affair. Each country has its own set of rules about vaccinations, blood tests, deworming and microchipping. For island countries free of rabies, an elaborate scheme of testing and vaccination is required to prevent a dog or cat from introducing the disease to the country.

Some families handle the international health paper requirements better than others. Take for example Justin Bieber and his pet Chapuchin monkey, Mally. Passports are required for band members on the Believe Tour to enter a foreign country, and Mally the monkey needed special health papers to enter Germany. The problem was, proper papers were lacking and Mally’s concert touring days prematurely ended. Apparently, Mally remains overseas.

Here’s a better story of a family that did their homework regarding international pet travel. Today I saw a cute dog named Avatar, in need of an international health certificate. One of the requirements for entry into her home country is a health certificate signed by an accredited veterinarian. Not every veterinarian is accredited by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), but this family knew to ask for an accredited veterinarian because they had carefully researched this information.

Avatar came to my office with a pile of papers carefully detailing all her vaccinations. I need this information to be sure she meets the entry requirements and to document vaccinations on the international health certificate. Another requirement for Avatar’s destination country is vaccination against leptospirosis. Leptospirosis is an infectious disease caused by a bacteria spread in the urine of wild animals. Happily, the paperwork indicated a vaccination against leptospirosis and I quickly checked off that requirement.

Avatar’s destination country did not require a microchip, but documentation of a microchip is a common requirement for entry into many countries. Some countries also have their own import paperwork, but Avatar’s accepted the USDA form. Once I signed off on my part of the health certificate, Avatar had another stop: the USDA area office at JFK Airport, where she received the endorsement of their New York area veterinarian.

How can you avoid a Bieber epic fail when traveling internationally with your pet?

  • Start early to ensue you have enough time for required testing or vaccination protocols.
  • Do your homework. Start with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website and the website of your destination country for pet import requirements.
  • If you need the signature of an accredited veterinarian like me, check to see if your veterinarian is accredited or ask for a recommendation.
  • Keep your pet up to date on vaccinations and other preventive health care measures to avoid any delays in getting your pet’s international health certificate.

Can Hurricane Sandy Make Your Pet Sick?

November 12, 2012

The deadliest feature of Hurricane Sandy was not the wind and rain, but water from the storm surge. The storm surge was so massive it brought water into the lobby of The Animal Medical Center, but my basement, prone to flooding during a heavy rain, stayed dry.

The severe flooding has displaced families, ruined homes and washed away cars. Flooding can also make you sick when it contains bacteria, viruses, and parasites from sewage. Severe flooding can also make your dog sick by providing ideal conditions for a bacteria known as leptospira. It rarely affects humans, but at The Animal Medical Center we see several serious cases of leptospirosis in dogs each year. Recently, leptospirosis in outdoor cats has been reported.

Fall hurricane season provides an optimal situation for leptospirosis to occur. Even without a hurricane, cases are more common in the spring and fall. Several different varieties of leptospira bacteria are responsible for illness, but all are considered waterborne illnesses, explaining why flooding increases the risk of contracting it. Rats are considered the major reservoir of leptospira bacteria in urban areas such as New York City. Sandy’s flooding “displaced” rats from the subway tunnels, bringing rats and their leptospira bacteria into the city streets.

Because of the increasing interface between wildlife and suburbia, even dogs in flooded suburban areas are at risk for contracting leptospirosis carried by mammals other than rats, including deer, mice, skunks, raccoons, cattle, and rabbits.

Dogs infected with leptospira bacteria are lethargic, refuse to eat, and vomit. When veterinarians test the blood of these dogs, anemia, decreased blood clotting ability, kidney failure, and liver dysfunction were commonly found. In severe cases, the lungs also lost function. Leptospirosis is treatable with antibiotics, but severe cases of kidney failure may require intensive treatment, including dialysis.

  • If your dog is sick and has been exposed to floodwaters, tell your veterinarian.
  • Don’t let your dog walk in or drink water where flooding has occurred.
  • Talk to your veterinarian about your dog’s need for the leptospirosis vaccine.
  • Read The AMC’s post hurricane safety tips.


Photo: Purina ONE

Dog Park Dangers

July 12, 2012

Dog parks are popping up all over suburban and urban areas, and for good reason. Daily exercise helps keep your dog healthy and gives her a chance to get out and socialize with other dogs and humans. In urban areas, dog parks provide a safe space for daily doggie exercise, but recent research suggests dog parks may not be as safe as we might think.


A recent study of dog feces collected from Colorado dogs suggests gastrointestinal parasites may be on the list of dog park dangers. Two intestinal protozoa, Giardia and Cryptosporidium, were found more commonly in dogs frequenting dog parks than in dogs that did not. These two organisms are not controlled by heartworm preventatives as are hookworms and roundworms. Identification of these critters is one reason for your veterinarian’s recommendation of an annual fecal examination for your pet.

Infectious disease

A coughing dog visiting a dog park may be a dog park danger, if he is infected with the bacteria causing kennel cough or the virus causing canine influenza. These two infectious diseases are easily spread between dogs in a dog park and are characterized by non-stop coughing. Parvovirus infection is another infectious disease readily transmitted to a healthy dog when it comes in contact with the feces of an infected dog. The good news is vaccinations are available to prevent these diseases and diligent pooper scooping is critical to prevent transmission of parvovirus as well as intestinal parasites in dog parks.

Dog bites

I anticipated dog bites or other injuries related to aggression would be common in dog parks, but a 2003 publication reported on 72 hours of dog park observations and found little evidence to support my theory of dog to dog aggression as a major problem in dog parks. The authors hypothesize dog owners with aggressive dogs avoid dog parks because they recognize the danger their dog poses to others.

Dog parks danger for other animals

A study of California sea lion strandings showed leptospirosis (a waterborne infectious disease) was more likely to occur in sea lions found in areas with a high density of dog parks. The authors of the study suggest exposure to dogs in dog parks may be in some way associated with the infection in sea lions. Leptospirosis is a life-threatening disease of the kidneys and liver. Dogs, humans, and possibly even cats can be infected, usually through urine-contaminated water. Dog owners should ask their veterinarian if leptospirosis is a concern in their neighborhood and should consider having their dog vaccinated against this disease.

If you live in New York City, a list of dog parks by borough can be found here.

Be sure to tell your veterinarian if your dog plays in dog parks as this information will help direct your dog’s preventive healthcare plan.

Doggy Dash and Distemper

July 25, 2011

Dr. Nate Lam and his dog, Cali

On Sunday, August 7, The Animal Medical Center Doggy Dash will give man (or woman) and his or her best friend the chance to compete in tandem over a 5-mile run course in New York City’s Central Park.

The AMC’s Doggy Dash is part of the 11th Annual Nautica NYC Triathlon and one of The AMC’s own — Dr. Nate Lam — will be participating in the triathlon to raise money, in part, for The AMC’s Buddy Fund for Cancer Care.

Dogs in the Dash must be healthy and current on vaccinations. One Doggy Dash participant contacted The AMC asking what the “D” in DHPP vaccine was so he could find out if his dog had been properly vaccinated. This question gives me an opportunity to write about canine distemper – the “D” in DHPP.

Before the distemper vaccine was developed in the 1950s, canine distemper caused serious illness and could wipe out an entire neighborhood’s dog population. Today, distemper in dogs can easily be prevented, and vaccination against distemper is considered a “core” vaccination for dogs. Distemper vaccine is commonly administered in a combination vaccine often called DA2PP or DHPP for distemper, adenovirus 2 (also called canine infectious hepatitis), parainfluenza and parvovirus. Rabies vaccination is the other core canine vaccine. Non-core vaccines include bordetella (kennel cough), canine influenza, Lyme disease, leptospirosis and corona virus. Vaccination guidelines recommend non-core vaccines be administered only to dogs with risk factors for the disease.

The name canine distemper is a bit misleading. The disease does not cause an ill temperament in an infected dog. The word comes from a Middle English word meaning to upset the balance of the humors. Medieval theories of medicine proposed the body was composed of four substances called humors and when the humors were out of alignment, illness occurred. The distemper virus infects a wide variety of animals including the black-footed ferret, Tasmanian tiger, African wild dog and lions. Distemper virus cannot infect humans but genetically it is closely related to the measles virus.

Distemper has several clinical manifestations. The initial clinical signs are fever, vomiting and nasal or ocular discharge. These might go away without treatment, or could progress to systemic illness such as pneumonia. Neurological signs such as seizures may accompany the illness, or may occur months later. Dogs may also develop thickened footpads or nasal planum (the hairless part of their nose) giving the disease its colloquial name, hardpad disease. Years after their initial infection, old dogs may develop “old dog encephalitis” in which the brain becomes inflamed from chronic distemper virus infection. Canine distemper virus can even affect the teeth. Puppies infected before their permanent teeth develop have a decreased amount of enamel covering their teeth.

Distemper virus infection is easily prevented by vaccination. Following a puppy series of shots, your veterinarian will discuss the frequency of distemper vaccination that is appropriate for your dog during its annual physical examination.

For more information about other diseases veterinarians commonly prevent with vaccinations, click on the following links:


This may also be found in the “Tales from the Pet Clinic” blog on

For over a century, The Animal Medical Center has been a national leader in animal health care, known for its expertise, innovation and success in providing routine, specialty and emergency medical care for companion animals. Thanks in part to the enduring generosity of donors, The AMC is also known for its outstanding teaching, research and compassionate community funds. Please help us to continue these efforts. Send your contribution to: The Animal Medical Center, 510 East 62nd Street, New York, NY 10065. For more information, visit To make an appointment, please call 212.838.7053.

Acknowledge Miracles

January 24, 2011

The tragedy in Tucson is on everyone’s mind. Since I am very medical and not very political, I was captivated by a quote in the New York Times last week attributed to one of the neurosurgeons caring for Congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords. Dr. G. Michael Lemole, Jr. had been asked if Ms. Gifford’s recovery was miraculous. His reply indicates a doctor of great insight. He said, “Miracles happen every day, and in medicine, we like to attribute them to what we do or what others do around us. A lot of medicine is outside our control. We are wise to acknowledge miracles.”

Herbie in the hospital

Sick Herbie in AMC ICU with EKG monitor and hemodialysis catheter.

I want to acknowledge one of the Animal Medical Center’s miracles, Herbie. Herbie was a 3 month old, formerly bouncy Labrador retriever when he first came to The AMC. He came to us because of a critical illness involving his liver and kidneys, ultimately diagnosed as leptospirosis. Leptospirosis is a systemic bacterial disease of dogs, humans and wildlife. The bacteria can injury the kidneys so severely that hemodialysis is required to replace the normal function of the kidneys, while antibiotics eradicate the infection. If diagnosed early, and treated intensively, recovery is possible. Like Congresswoman Giffords, Herbie was on the critical list and was given a 10% chance of survival.

Intensive is the only word to describe Herbie’s treatment. In addition to hemodialysis, a pivotal decision was made by Dr. Buriko of the AMC’s ICU staff to perform an emergency, middle of the night surgery to correct an intestinal problem brought on by the severe vomiting and diarrhea from leptospirosis. Following surgery, he required a red blood cell transfusion to replace cells lost in surgery and in his stool. He also received a canine albumen transfusion to replace lost protein in his blood stream.

Herbie’s treatment was not just medical. His family believes AMC’s “human touch” made all the difference in their Labrador’s miraculous recovery. He had visits from Dr. Currao’s puppy who reminded Herbie life as a puppy was worth living. The ICU staff sat with him, encouraging him to eat homemade chicken. Herbie was one of those cases the ICU staff knew would recover faster if him family visited and his dedicated family complied, visiting him twice a day.

Herbie after treatment

Miracle Herbie at home last week.

Three weeks after he was admitted to the intensive care unit, Herbie was discharged to his family. At a follow up visit just before Christmas, Herbie’s kidney tests, which were five times the normal value at admission, were nearly normal. His family reports he is a cuter, friskier and smarter puppy than before he was stricken with leptospirosis. A miracle indeed.

This blog may also be found in the “Tales from the Pet Clinic” blog from WebMD.

For over a century, The Animal Medical Center has been a national leader in animal health care, known for its expertise, innovation and success in providing routine, specialty and emergency medical care for companion animals. Thanks in part to the enduring generosity of donors, The AMC is also known for its outstanding teaching, research and compassionate community funds. Please help us to continue these efforts. Send your contribution to: The Animal Medical Center, 510 East 62nd Street, New York, NY 10065. For more information, visit To make an appointment, please call 212.838.7053.

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