NYC Rat Hunters Enlist Help of Dogs as Record Number Cases of Rare Disease Hit City

New York City is seeing a record number of cases of a rare disease found in rat urine called leptospirosis. But a group of rat hunters are doing their best to catch these pests with the help of their trusty dogs.

The city has reported at least 15 cases of leptospirosis resulting in 13 hospitalizations and one death. Three of the cases were individuals facing homelessness and one person reported acquiring the illness while traveling, according to the New York State Department of Health. Of the 15 cases, 13 resulted in hospitalization due to acute renal and hepatic failure, the NYSDOH reported.

Leptospirosis is a rare zoonotic disease spread through the urine of infected animals and contaminated food or water. According to the NYSDOH, higher rates of disease are found in "warm, moist environments."

While the disease is rarely reported in NYC, health officials saw a spike in cases this year. It is unclear what caused the increase, but the health department believes changes in climate and higher temperatures could contribute to the spike.

While the NYSDOH is working with homeowners to conduct rat remediation, some citizens are taking to the streets on their own to deal with the rat problem. Richard Reynolds, an American Kennel Club judge, took the overwhelming rat problem in the city into his own hands, or rather his dog's mouth.

For about 30 years, Reynolds has spent his Friday nights responding to public complaints about rats. With the help of his volunteer group, Reynold's Ryders Alley Trencher Fed Society (RATS), Reynolds and his dog hunt rats on the streets of NYC.

According to data from the city, there are about 2 million brown rats living in NYC. That's about a quarter of the human population in the city. The city has received over 20,000 complaints of rat infestations since January 2021, a 20 percent increase since 2020.

Reynolds told Insider that most of the complaints come from desperate city residents living in public housing projects. He said the rats are often in the same trash cans each time.

Record number of rat borne illness NYC
New York has recorded 15 cases of leptospirosis, a rare disease carried by rats. But some people, like Richard Reynolds, are taking to the streets to hunt the rats themselves. Chanawat Phadwichit/Getty Images

During the hunt, Reynold's terrier and the other volunteers' dogs track down the rats at various garbage cans and construction sites in the city. Then the dogs instinctively kill the rats. But Reynolds says over his 30 years of hunting he's never seen a dog get sick.

Reynolds said the dogs know to avoid the diseased rats. "You can tell when you see a pile of dead rats if they look sick and dehydrated, they probably have lepto," Reynolds told Insider. "Our dogs walk right past those rats."

Reynolds started hunting rats after a dog show in Liberty Park. Reynolds said one of the dog handler's set ups became infested with rats, and he let his terrier go take care of business. After the park superintendent saw the terrier hunt and kill the rats and asked Reynolds to come back and help hunt more rats.

"Our hunts, they suit both the places we hunt and it suits the terriers—they do what they were born to do," Reynolds told Narratively. "They love it, we get our kicks out of it."

The NYSDOH is asking the public to report rat infestations to 311 and to be aware of suspected cases of leptospirosis.