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After multiple dog deaths, locals raise alarms about McCarren Park

mccarren park dog run
Dog owners say standing water is a common issue at the McCarren Park dog run, and that it’s likely contributed to several dogs falling ill and dying after visiting the park.
Photo courtesy of Agnes Reichert

Four dogs have reportedly died after contracting a fatal bacterial disease, and many canine owners are frantically speculating that they all contracted the infection while visiting the McCarren Park dog run in Williamsburg. 

North Brooklynites raised the alarm on social media early last week after three dogs had been diagnosed with leptospirosis, a bacterial disease usually contracted through contact with the urine of rats and other rodents, or contaminated soil and water.

Days later, at least four sick dogs had died, according to a Daily News report.

Most of the dogs had recently visited the fenced-in dog run at McCarren Park, at the triangular intersection of North 12th Street and Driggs and Union avenues. The city’s parks department said in a statement that the area is not an official department-sanctioned dog run, though their website refers to the area as such.

None of the possible cases have been confirmed by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as of Friday afternoon.

The health department investigates about 15 cases of canine leptospirosis per year, and “clusters” of infection are rare, according to a spokesperson.

oreo, a gray french bulldog
Oreo quickly got seriously ill and had to be euthanized after becoming infected with leptospirosis. His owners suspect he picked up the disease at the McCarren Park dog run. Photo courtesy of @0re0thefrenchie/Instagram

A two-year-old French bulldog named Oreo, was the first pooch publicly reported to have contracted the disease. Within a few hours of returning from the park, he was vomiting and lethargic, said Dakarrie Garcia. Eventually, the pooch became jaundiced as his liver and kidneys were attacked by the disease, and Oreo’s owner was forced to euthanize him a few days later.

A health department representative noted that dogs typically present with symptoms a week or two after exposure, not within hours.

Oreo belonged to Garcia’s cousin, who also lives in Williamsburg, he said. But during the pandemic, he took the young dog in for a few months for training.

“Oreo was a great dog, during the pandemic, I was alone — all I had was my dogs,” he said. “I was legitimately alone, my roommate’s father had passed away so he left to be with his mother in Detroit. Had Oreo not come around, I probably would have left during the pandemic to go be back home in California.”

Since moving to Williamsburg seven years ago, Garcia has been frustrated with the way the Parks Department maintains the city’s dog runs, he said, and has repeatedly raised his concerns about rat infestations and standing water.

“It’s just like, what is going on, nobody cares, they won’t do anything,” he said. “They’ll give us mulch to cover it up, they’ll give us cedar sticks to cover it up. It just adds a band-aid and more bacteria. We need change, we don’t need a band-aid.”

On Friday, the department swapped out McCarren’s existing garbage cans for rat-proof bins, and an exterminator was searching the park for signs of rats. The area was last treated for rats three weeks ago, according to a Parks representative. 

Starting on Monday, teams will be “refreshing” the area, including replacing the wood chips in the dog run. They officially closed the run over the weekend, hanging a sign on the fence that the “area is temporarily closed for improvements.”

According to Tweets posted by Councilmember Lincoln Restler, they’ll also be making repairs to improve drainage in the dog park — a critical step to reducing the chances of infection, as dogs can get sick if they walk in or drink from contaminated puddles.

Neighbors have also started an online fundraiser to install turf at the dog run to ensure ongoing proper drainage and easier sanitation.

While cases have not yet been confirmed by the Department of Health, local dog lovers aren’t taking any chances. 

The Northside Veterinary Clinic on Berry Street has opted to open appointments for existing patients to receive the two-shot leptospirosis vaccine “due to the rise in cases” of the disease, according to their social media channels. The vaccine is not usually on a dog’s annual roster, and is not required by the city or most boarding or grooming facilities. 

At Buddy’s Dog Den, a doggy daycare a few blocks from McCarren Park, staff have taken away shared water bowls and now set out each dog’s individual water bowl at set times during the day to avoid cross-contamination, said Agnes Reichert, the facility’s manager.

Reichert has reached out to Buddy’s go-to vet to try to coordinate a vaccination clinic, she said, something they did a few years ago during a particularly severe outbreak of dog flu.

On Friday morning, after Reichert was interviewed by a TV news anchor outside the dog run, a woman approached her “freaking out” after finding out about the dogs who had died — she hadn’t known and had just visited the dog run with her pooch earlier that day.

layers of mulch at mccarren park
Layers of mulch at the McCarren Park dog run give rats ample space for burrowing and spreading the potentially deadly infection. Photo courtesy of Agnes Reichert

She and another Buddy’s employee posted their own warning signs on the fence, but parks employees removed them because she did not have a permit, she said.

“Which is ridiculous, because dogs are still being left to be exposed to this very contagious and potentially fatal disease,” Reichert said. 

According to the Michigan State College of Veterinary Medicine, dogs infected with canine leptospirosis will show signs of irregular bowel movements, loss of appetite, fatigue, and vomiting.

Owners concerned about potential exposure should contact a vet right away — early treatment is most effective, but any leptospirosis infection has the potential to permanently damage a dog’s kidney or liver. If your dog is diagnosed, tell the vet to report the case to the city’s health department.

According to the American Kennel Club, more than 25 percent of all leptospirosis cases are fatal, and unvaccinated dogs are significantly more likely to contract the disease than vaccinated ones.

Humans can also contract leptospirosis, and, while the risk of catching it from an infected pet is low, the CDC recommends taking care to avoid direct contact with an infected dog’s tissue or urine, and cleaning potentially contaminated surfaces with an antibacterial or bleach solution.

Last September, the city’s health department issued an advisory about a significant uptick in leptospirosis cases in humans. Fourteen people were diagnosed across four boroughs in 2021, and 13 were hospitalized with acute liver and kidney failure. One person died as a result of the infection. Most of the people who were infected had a “clear history or risk factor” which exposed them to severe rat infestations.

Reichert urged dog owners to keep their pups away from McCarren Park and from garbage, puddles, and other potential sources of infection — anywhere some of the city’s two million rats might congregate, and Garcia, in line with his profession, asked that New Yorkers with dogs who tend to eat off the street or drink from puddles seek training.

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