7 tips to keep your dog safe from rats and fatal toxins

University of Sydney experts are warning all dog owners in the inner city and the inner west to have their dog vaccinated against leptospirosis and to stay away from rat baits.

A dog on a lead tied to a pole waiting for its owner.

Call your vet to see if your dog needs to be vaccinated. Photo: Unsplash

1. Get your dog vaccinated

The current recommendation is for all dog owners in inner Sydney and the inner west to have their dog vaccinated at their local vet. The specific suburbs where leptospirosis has been reported are Surry Hills, Glebe and Darlinghurst. Call your vet for advice as some dogs should not be vaccinated.

A dog walking along a street on a lead with a graffiti wall behind it

Walk your dog on a lead in Surry Hills, Glebe and Darlinghurst. Photo: Unsplash

2. Keep your dog on a lead

“We are advising dog owners to walk their dog on a lead in the affected areas,” said Dr Anne Fawcett, from the School of Veterinary Science. “The fatal bacterial infection is spread by rats and other rodents. Dogs can become infected by direct contact (from a rat bite or from eating a rat) and indirect contact (drinking urine-contaminated water or licking contaminated soil).”

3. Know the early signs of illness

Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection that can cause acute kidney failure and liver disease in dogs. The early signs can be vague – look for fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, or a soft cough. If you are worried, go to the vet early.

photo of a dog lying in grass in a park

Keep an eye on your dog in parks, don’t let it chew a rat or a rat bait. Photo: Unsplash

4. Keep your dog away from rat baits

The City of Sydney plans to double the number of rat baits in the inner city and inner west. Rat baits are toxic to dogs. “Thousands of dogs in NSW are affected by rat bait ingestion every year and this can be fatal,” said Dr Anne Fawcett, in the School of Veterinary Science. “If you see your dog eat rat bait seek veterinary attention immediately, as your vet may be able to induce vomiting. Keep your dog on a lead in the vicinity of rat baits. Some dogs are incredibly persistent with chewing and getting things out of containers. It is very important to exercise caution. Do not walk a dog off-leash in affected areas or in the vicinity of rat baits.”

5. Avoid rat baits in your home

Avoid putting rat baits in the home or backyard without veterinary advice. The last thing you want is your dog coming across a bait and mistaking it for a treat or toy.

6. Know the early signs of rat bait poisoning

“If you see your dog eat rat bait seek veterinary attention immediately, as your vet may be able to induce vomiting,” says Dr Fawcett. “Signs of rat bait toxicity include weakness, fatigue, pale gums, bruising and coughing. There is an antidote which is most effective if given early.”

7. Aim to reduce rats around the home and garden

Make sure you don’t leave food outside, including pet food. Remember that rats can chew and eat anything. Secure all rubbish in bins with a tightly-fitted lid and restrict access to compost. “Pest control works best when neighbours join in to control over a big area,” says conservation biologist Professor Peter Banks, from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences. “The other issue is BBQs. Rats can get in and access the fat trays. Keeping your outdoor BBQ clean is a good idea. Having pets makes no difference. Rats are not deterred by cats or dogs.”

Rats in the garden

Brown rats in inner city Sydney. Residents can make their yard less attractive to rats by securing all rubbish in closed bins, keeping a lid on compost and avoid leaving pet food out at night.

Rat problem in Sydney

Since May 2019, six confirmed cases of leptospirosis in the inner west have been reported. All the dogs died or were euthanased. While it is thought that the recent outbreak could be due to major construction occurring in Sydney and therefore increased exposure to rats and contamination of subterranean water, the current source of infection and the strain of bacteria involved is unknown.

The City of Sydney has confirmed it will double the number of rat bait stations in public areas and increase rat monitoring after the outbreak of leptospirosis, which can be fatal for dogs. However, University of Sydney experts are warning rat baits can also be toxic to dogs.

photo of a black rat on grass

Black and brown rats are very common in Sydney. This is a young black rat. Photo: Mal Weerakoon

What rat is that?

Conservation biologist Professor Peter Banks, from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, said there are two main species of rat in Sydney: the brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, also known as the Norway rat and the black rat Rattus rattus, also known as the ship rat or roof rat.

“Both have global distributions, spread by European explorers on ships. Black rats are by far the most common in Sydney as a whole, including in bushland areas as well as urban, while the brown rats more common in the inner city.”

Professor Banks is concerned that rat baits also kill our native Australian rats. “We have more than 60 species of native rat in Australia,” Professor Banks said.

“This includes the water rat or Rakali (indigenous name) Hydromys chrysogaster which can be up to one kilogram and is in Sydney harbour and foreshore areas. Unfortunately, they can also be killed by baiting campaigns – so care should be taken when considering pest rat control near to waterways to protect this species.”

Photo of a dog lying on the floor looking sad.

If you are worried about your dog, call your local vet. Photo: Fran/Pixabay

Studying outbreaks

Dr Christine Griebsch, Senior Lecturer in Small Animal Medicine, from the School of Veterinary Science, has issued an alert to all vets to contact their clients in the area to encourage them to bring their dogs in for leptospirosis vaccination. If you are concerned contact your local vet.

Subject to ethics approval, the University of Sydney plans to undertake a study to determine which strains of bacteria are involved and if there is any specific source of infection which can be identified.

“The recent outbreak of leptospirosis poses not only a risk to unvaccinated dogs but also to their owners,” Dr Griebsch said. “This research project will enable us to identify the causative bacterial strain and begin to investigate the epidemiology of this outbreak which is essential for an effective preventative plan.”