Four dogs became seriously ill with at least one dying in first UK babesiosis outbreak as experts blame relaxation of pet travel rules
Animal disease experts have blamed a relaxation in European pet travel restrictions for the first recorded outbreak in the UK of a tick-borne disease that can be fatal for dogs.
One dog died and three become seriously ill after contracting babesiosis, caused by a parasite carried by ticks. So far, the outbreak is confined to Harlow in Essex but the spread of the disease to the rest of the UK is thought to be inevitable.
Prof Richard Wall, of Bristol University’s biological sciences school, who is leading the largest UK veterinary study of tick-borne disease, said the outbreak was of “huge significance” and a “major concern for animal health”.
None of the dogs that contracted the disease had travelled out of the UK. But a relaxation in pet travel rules is considered the most likely reason behind the disease spreading to the UK.
It used to be compulsory for imported dogs to be treated for ticks before entering the UK and Ireland but the requirement was dropped in January 2012 to comply with EU regulations. Clive Swainsbury, the Harlow vet who first identified the disease in the UK, said increased pet travel had raised the risks of the disease spreading.
In letter to the Veterinary Record alerting others in his profession to the outbreak, he and two colleagues wrote: “There has been a marked increase in the number of dogs being rescued from abroad into the area but we are at a loss to know why the requirement to treat dogs for ticks upon entry to the UK was relaxed.”
Sean Wensley, president of the British Veterinary Association, said: “The BVA lobbied hard against the relaxing of controls under the EU pet travel scheme, which included removing the requirement for tick treatment to prevent diseases such as babesiosis being introduced into the country, and it is disappointing to see our concerns potentially becoming a reality.”
Government inspectors have examined a field where the dogs exercised. Nigel Gibbens, the chief vet, said there was no risk to human health but he urged dog owners to check for ticks.
Swainsbury, a partner at Forest Veterinary Centre in Harlow, which treated three of the infected dogs, said the spread of the disease was inevitable.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “At the moment we have one well-defined localised area. The problem in the future is that every female tick will lay a couple of thousand eggs and all those offspring will carry the disease ... even if you do all you can, you are not going to stop the spread of the disease.”
He added: “There are seriously ill dogs that we have encountered ... The worst I’ve seen is a dog dying.”
The disease spreads in a similar way to how humans catch malaria from mosquitoes, Swainsbury explained. He said: “The parasite enters the bloodstream and in the process of trying to kill the parasite, the dog will destroy its own blood cells and become very, very anaemic. The only way [to deal with it] is to kill the tick quickly, because the tick has to be feeding for 24 hours at least before it transmits the disease.”
The results are due in July, but Packham revealed that preliminary results suggested a widepread presence of tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease and babesiosis . “At the moment the indications are that the presence of these pathogens is widespread across the country,” he told Today.
Harlow council urged dog owners to check their pets for ticks. It said: “It is important that dog owners have their pets protected with anti-tick treatment and regularly check their dogs for ticks.” It warned dog owners to avoid walking their animals in an area to the south of the town where the outbreak was first detected.
There are no vaccines available in the UK for babesiosis. Treatment is focused on killing the parasite and stopping the dog’s immune system from destroying more red blood cells. Prevention is based on routine use of anti-tick medication and removing ticks from dog fur. It is not thought to pose a risk to other pet species such as cats.
Packham said there was “no doubt” the disease would spread. He added: “An educational exercise is required to ensure that every dog owner knows that ticks are potentially a problem for them. Vigilence is what’s required to understand this problem and manage it.”
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