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Health Watch: The Dangerous Bacteria That Can Strike Humans And Dogs

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Doctors and veterinarians are warning about a hidden threat from a deadly bacteria that people can contract from their dogs. A growing number of pets are getting the infection, and it's easily spread and often missed.

Olga Alicia treasures even the remains of her beloved dog, Asya.

"Asya, Mommy is here. I love you," Olga said. She kissed the box holding Asya's ashes.

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"Every day, she will always be in my heart," Olga said. "Never had a daughter. That was my daughter."

The 5-year-old pitbull terrier died from a bacterial infection called leptospirosis, and it's striking a growing number of pets.

Dr. Nahvid Etedali of Penn Vet said leptospirosis is "something that exists in the environment and can last for a very long time in the environment."

The bacteria is transmitted by animal urine. "All it takes is one blade of grass and one drop of urine," Dr. Etedali said.

It's rare, but humans can also get leptospirosis. "It is something that's zoonotic," Dr. Etedali said. "That means it's transmissible from animal to person."

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If you grab a dog toy that's been in the yard and have a cut, or eat something before washing your hands, the bacteria could be transmitted. It can even spread while doing yard work. It's gross to think about, but animal urine is all over the place outside.

It can be inside, too. Leptospirosis is blamed for the February death of a man in a Bronx apartment building. Rats apparently brought the bacteria in.

The CDC says in humans, leptospirosis can cause a wide range of symptoms: high fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, vomiting, yellowing skin and eyes from jaundice, red eyes, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and a rash. Sometimes, leptospirosis causes no symptoms at all. It also can be mistaken for other diseases. Left untreated, it can cause organ damage and death.

The good news is, "it is easily treatable with antibiotics, and the prognosis for it is generally good," Dr. Etedali said.

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In dogs, leptospirosis symptoms can also be vague. Signs include everything from lethargy to upset stomach to fever.

"It can cause inflammation of blood vessels sometimes," Dr. Etedali said. "It does cause the whites of their eyes to be bloodshot."

The infection is confirmed with blood testing. But for Olga and her beloved Asya, it was too late.

"I dearly miss her," Olga said. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't shed a tear."

Olga says Asya must have been infected on the backyard porch where she liked to hang out. Sadly, outside was a hidden danger.

Now there's a shrine for Asya inside.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has information on leptospirosis.

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