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It seemed, at first, like a simple canine case of just not feeling well. But within days, the Pistner family's schnauzer, Gretta, was vomiting and so weak she could barely lift her head.

She died in her sleep -- just hours after a veterinarian delivered disturbing news: The dog had succumbed to a disease that had been all but dormant here but is now surging.

"We were stunned," Barbara Pistner said of her; her husband, Bill; and their daughter, Katie, upon learning Gretta died of a bacterial disease called Leptospirosis.

"We had never even heard of it before," she said. "We were devastated."

So are other pet owners. Although an exact number of cases is not available -- the law does not require Leptospirosis to be reported -- local vets say the disease is striking more pets than ever before in this part of New York.

Blame the increasing number of cases on a combination of one of the worst rat infestations in years and a particularly rainy year. The disease is spread by contact with water, soil or food contaminated by infected urine from a variety of wildlife but predominantly rodents.

Some localities are trying to inform the public about the disease. Meanwhile, veterinarians are urging residents to be aware but not to overreact.

"This is not the Bubonic Plague, this is not anthrax," said Peter Freyburger, who heads the Brighton-Eggert Animal Clinic, where 16 cases have been reported this year -- far more than the two or three, if any, the Town of Tonawanda practice usually sees.

The Pistners, of the Town of Amherst, were even more alarmed to learn the disease can sicken and in rare cases kill humans as well. Freyburger, though, urges caution.

"A terrorist isn't going to be interested in it," Freyburger said. "It's not highly contagious."

For humans and animals, the early symptoms are flulike, which makes it hard to diagnose. Caught in time, Leptospirosis can be cured with penicillin and other antibiotics. Untreated, it can cause fatal damage to the liver and kidneys and, for humans, meningitis.

For dogs, the end can come so quickly that most owners are like the Pistner family -- they never knew what hit them.

"We were walking around the block, and he started licking the grass," Paul Winter of the Town of Tonawanda said of his dog, Beau. "He started getting sluggish."

Four days after that walk, Beau, a 6-year-old Yorkshire terrier, was so sick he had to be euthanized.

"It was a shock to lose him so quickly," Winter said.

Also worrisome is that new strains are emerging -- there are about a dozen here -- making existing vaccines not always effective, vets say.

Only a special blood test can determine whether people or animals have the disease.

Cats and other animals are susceptible to Lepto, as vets call it, but dogs are particularly at risk because of their penchant for licking. Just an everyday walk can put them at risk.

All those puddles and standing water created by rain storms this year made matters worse. They are perfect reservoirs for the disease and thus dangerous watering holes.

Humans become infected with Leptospirosis if they have contact with tainted water, food or soil, and the bacteria enter their systems through, say, a cut or by splashing in their eyes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC said the disease is not known to spread from person to person.

In New York and elsewhere in the country, human cases of Leptospirosis are unusual and mostly considered an occupational hazard for those who come into contact with animals, like farmers, vets or sewer workers.

Of the 16 dogs treated at the Brighton-Eggert Animal Clinic, one of the area's largest veterinary practices, four died.

The Orchard Park Veterinary Medical Center used to see a Lepto case about once every two months; now it sees at least one a month, and there have been fatalities, said veterinarian David Brummer.

The number of cases is expected to fall once the temperature drops to freezing, killing the bacteria, which likes moist, slightly cool weather. Vets say about 80 percent of the people and animals exposed to the disease will not be sickened by it, especially if otherwise healthy.

But for humans and pets already suffering health problems, or for the very young or elderly, caution is advised.

"If you have the symptoms and you have some reason for concern, you should alert your physician," said Patrick McDonough of the New York State Health Diagnostic Lab at Cornell University, which has seen its Lepto caseloads increase in the last several years. McDonough said the disease is global but that sporadic outbreaks of Liptospirosis have occurred in downstate New York and elsewhere in the Northeast over the past decade or so.

It just started appearing upstate in recent years, he said.

With the number of complaints about the disease rising, local officials are starting to step up efforts to combat rodents. Some localities, like the Town of Tonawanda, sent out fliers to residents warning them of the problem. Amherst is mulling a request for $1.5 million to purchase rodentproof garbage cans next year.

In general, residents are being asked to use extra precautions, like making sure garbage cans have lids on them or limiting bird feed until the infestations are under control.

"Remove the food source, you remove the problem," said Leonard J. Fiegl, Amherst's senior refuse officer.

Pistner is also hoping more will be done to alert the public.

"I'd hate to see another family go through what we went through," she said.


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