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Disease surveillance in pets

I work as a clinical pathologist and veterinary investigations officer when I am not on shift with FirstVet. My job involves all aspects of disease surveillance, such as recognition of disease, monitoring the status of diseases in the UK, protection of animal welfare, and identification of new and emerging diseases. However, there really is no possibility that the disease surveillance network could operate without the help of pet owners and private vets. Pet owners are on the front line of disease surveillance and we rely heavily on this input. Education and sharing information with the public is, therefore, very important and I will discuss some of the current threats faced by UK pets here.

This article was written by a FirstVet vet

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Diseases which can be introduced to the UK

There are challenges faced by the veterinary industry in the face of increased pet travel. This includes taking a pet on holiday abroad and then returning to the UK. More recently, pet owners have been adopting animals from shelters overseas and having them imported. In doing so, there is a risk of introducing new diseases into the UK, which may not have previously been a problem. Diseases such as Leishmania are being seen quite regularly with imported dogs. Vets are required to keep up to date with emerging diseases, learning the relevant clinical signs and treatments. It is also important for vets to communicate the potential risks to UK pet owners and their pets. You may not have heard of Leishmania before, but is likely that you will have heard of Rabies. Rabies is a viral infection that is often fatal to unvaccinated people and animals. It can be transmitted between animals and humans, so is classed as a zoonotic disease. The UK is officially free of Rabies, but this could change if the virus is introduced by accident.


Diseases which are new to the UK

Alabama rot is a classic example of a new and emerging disease in the UK. If you would like to know more about Alabama rot please see our associated article. It is common for a new disease pattern to emerge periodically. There is often a lot of research required to understand the implications, cause and spread of any new illness. This is a current and ongoing process for Alabama rot. The veterinary industry is striving to improve its understanding of this little known disease: diagnosis, treatment and outcomes for patients as well as trying to establish the best advice for pet owners to help them to avoid the disease.


Diseases and climate change

With milder winters and changes to the UK climate, the map of disease distribution will change. This is often demonstrated by mapping a disease spread by insects. Insects such as sand flies, mosquitos, midges and ticks can spread disease from one animal to another. For example, Lyme Disease is spread by ticks. More information about this disease can be found in our article. If ticks survive for longer, and the ‘tick season’ is extended by favourable weather conditions, then it is presumed that infection rates will increase in the future; surveillance for this disease is ongoing and the data suggests that the number of cases have increased over the past decade.


Diseases we can no longer treat

Antibiotic resistance is a large problem facing the medical world, and not just the veterinary industry. This has important implications for the use and effectiveness of antibiotic medications needed for humans, as well as pets. Bacteria are a part of our everyday life, but some bacteria can cause harm to us and our pets. Since the discovery of antibiotics, many infections have been relatively easy to treat with the correct antibiotics. Recently, however, it has become apparent that bacteria can evolve and adapt to outsmart these antibiotics’ they are developing resistance.

Unfortunately, some bacteria are now resistant to every antibiotic we have available. We call these bacteria superbugs. These present a significant problem for the patients affected and for the teams treating them. There is a race to develop new treatments for bacterial infections. However, drug discovery, the process of development and clinical trials take time, typically around 10 years. Therefore, there is no quick solution to this problem.

Vets and doctors are now encouraged to try to prevent the emergence of superbugs by using antibiotics only where necessary. Where an antibiotic is required, the drug selected should be based on laboratory test results, bacterial culture and antibiotic sensitivity testing. The bacteria are grown, on an agar plate in the laboratory, from a relevant sample taken by the vet. The bacteria grown are then challenged with different antibiotics impregnated in tiny paper discs. The result can take 2-5 days to see a full result and will inform the vet which specific antibiotics to use to successfully treat the infection.


Further information on disease surveillance is available from the Animal Health and Plant Agency and the British Veterinary Association. If you have any concerns about your own pet, or about wildlife, please contact FirstVet or your veterinary practice to discuss further.

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