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; identification of disease, monitoring disease status in the UK, protection of animal welfare and recognition 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 with you in this article.
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Diseases which can be introduced to the UK
Increased pet travel brings with it a number challenges for the veterinary industry. This includes taking a pet on holiday abroad and then returning to the UK. Recently, however, more pet owners have been adopting animals from overseas shelters, which have the animals imported to the UK. This is, of course, an easy way to introduce disease into the UK, which may not have previously been present.
Diseases such as Leishmania are now being seen regularly with travelled dogs. Vets are needing to adapt and learn the relevant clinical signs and treatments for new diseases, as well as understand and communicate the potential risks to the UK population. 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 from animals to humans so is classed as a zoonotic disease. The UK is free of Rabies, but this could change if the virus is introduced by mistake.
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 factsheet. It is common for a new disease to emerge every so often, such as Covid-19. A lot of research is required to understand the implications, spread and cause of any new illness. This is currently an ongoing process for Alabama rot. The veterinary industry is striving to improve diagnosis, treatment and outcomes for patients, as well as trying to establish the best advice for pet owners to avoid the disease altogether.
Diseases and climate change
With milder winters and changes to the climate in the UK, the map of disease distribution is expected to change. This is often demonstrated by the map of diseases that are spread by insects. Certain insects such as sand flies, mosquitos, midges and ticks can spread disease from one animal to another. For example, Lyme disease, which is spread by ticks. More information can be found on our factsheet. If ticks survive for longer and the ‘tick season’ is extended by favourable weather conditions, it is presumed that infection rates will increase over time. Tick activity is monitored closely but the data shows that there are an increased number of cases in comparison to a decade ago.
Diseases we can no longer treat
There is a large problem facing the medical world, not just the veterinary industry, and that is one of antibiotic resistance. Bacteria are a part of our everyday life but some bacteria can cause harm to us and to our pets. Since the discovery of antibiotics, these infections have been relatively easy to treat. Recently, however, it has become apparent that bacteria can evolve and adapt to outsmart these antibiotics: they are becoming resistant.
There are some bacteria now in the world that are resistant to every type of antibiotic available. These bacteria are sometimes called superbugs. There is a race to find new treatments for bacterial infections, but drug discovery and clinical trials take time; there is currently no easy solution to this problem. Vets are now trying to prevent the emergence of superbugs by using antibiotics only where there is a clear indication of infection and by selecting the correct antibiotic based on laboratory results, which identify the type bacteria. To do this, the bacteria are grown in the laboratory from a sample from the patient provided by the vet. The test sample is challenged with specific antibiotics to inform the vet which of the antibiotics is most effective and should therefore be selected for treatment.
Further reading on disease surveillance:
When to contact a vet?
If you have any concerns about your own pet, please book a video appointment with one of our vets to discuss this further. If you have any concerns about wildlife, please contact the Animal Health and Plant Agency.