Vets warn about increased spread of fatal disease putting dogs at risk

Vets are issuing a warning to dog owners as a potentially fatal dog disease has now spread throughout the UK.

Lungworm was originally believed to be limited to southern regions, but research has revealed the parasite’s presence in northern areas of England, and even Scotland, which were not previously considered at risk.

There have been 2,762 recorded confirmed cases of lungworm in the UK, however many are still unreported, with south-east England and Wales considered hotspot regions for cases.

Now experts from Vets4Pets and Bayer are working to raise awareness of the disease amongst dog owners and vets, focussing on areas which were previously thought to be safe.

Dr Huw Stacey, director of clinical services at Vets4Pets, said: “The continued spread of the lungworm parasite throughout the UK over the past ten years or so means the UK dog population is increasingly at risk.

“Cases of lungworm being seen in Scotland shows that the parasite can easily establish itself in a new area that wasn’t considered a traditional places for cases. Previous studies have shown that practices in south Wales and south-eastern England were between 15 and 16 times more likely to see a case than anywhere else in the UK, but this is slowly changing.”

Foxes are a host of the disease, alongside dogs, and a recent survey revealed that lungworm prevalence in foxes in Greater London has reached nearly 75%.

Lungworm in foxes in northern England has also gone from 0% to 7.4% in the last ten years, whilst the UK average is now 18.3%.

Dr Stacey added: “Foxes are a key indicator, as lungworm cases are likely to be mirrored in dogs, so we can make an informed assessment of risk to dogs in areas of high numbers of infected foxes.

“The urbanisation of foxes in more and more areas across the UK means that even walking a dog only in a city or town cannot protect them from coming into contact with the parasite, and it is worrying to see the prevalence is a high as 75% in areas like London.”

What is lungworm?

Lungworm is a parasite that uses multiple species to help complete its lifecycle. Dogs and foxes are the primary host, whilst slugs, snails and even frogs are the intermediate hosts.

Lungworm larvae are produced inside the dog or fox and pass through their faeces, which are eaten by slugs and snails, where the parasite can then develop inside these hosts. If your dog accidentally eats and infected slug or snail, or comes into contact with their slime, they can become infected.

A study by the University of Glasgow confirmed lungworm is now endemic in Scotland, after the parasite was present in 6.7% of slugs and snails collect in parks around Glasgow and Ayrshire.

Most recently, in January this year, 9.1% of slugs sampled from six sites in Guildford also tested positive for lungworm.

Dr Stacey said: “It is believed that the average British garden contains over 20,000 slugs and snails. So, the risk of dogs encouraging a potential host of the lungworm parasite is high. This means chewing grass, drinking from water bowls outside and playing with toys and sticks that have been in the garden overnight can all increase the risk of dogs contracting lungworm.”

Unfortunately, lungworm can often be difficult to diagnose, with some dogs not showing signs of infection for months, meaning sudden death can occur, particularly in younger dogs.

The signs can also be very variable, and the coughing and breathing difficulties can often be confused with conditions like kennel cough.

“Common signs of the disease include coughing and breathing problems, but also weight loss, vomiting, diarrhoea, tiredness, blood clotting or excessive bleeding from small wounds and changes in behaviour,” continued Dr Stacey of Vets4Pets.

“However, in many cases of lungworm, a dog doesn’t display any clear sins of the disease for quite some time, or if they do, the signs can present very differently in each dog. An untreated dog that isn’t showing signs of lungworm can even excrete larvae for at least two years before it is treated, spreading the parasite around its local area.”

Donna Tomlinson, senior brand manager at Bayer, said: “It’s important that we raise public awareness of lungworm, as cases continue to rise in regions where it wasn’t believed to be present. Educating pet owners is essential, but raising awareness amongst vets is equally as important, particularly in areas like Scotland and the north of England.

“We are working alongside vets to report cases of lungworm that they see and treat so we can keep our map up-to-date, so that it is the best resource for dog owners to be aware of where and when cases are highest.”

Vets4Pets Dr Stacey continued: “Diagnosis of lungworm is not always easy, and there have been cases where dogs who have unrecognised lungworm have died due to blood loss during routine operations like neutering, as it causes excessive bleeding from wounds.

“However, the disease is completely preventable, and the best way to stop your dog from contracting lungworm is to use worming tablets or spot-on treatments. Not all working treatments are effective against lungworm though, so visit your vet for advice.

“It’s important that dog owners remember to keep up with their dog’s treatment every month. Worming every three months, which is advised for other parasites, such as roundworm and tapeworm, will not be effective at preventing this parasite.

“The outcome for an affected dog in most cases is very good if it is diagnosed quickly and the dog receives prompt treatment. That’s why it is so important that dog owners, and even vets, are aware of the risk nationwide, even if there are hasn’t see cases before.”

Dog owners can check if there are any cases of lungworm in their local area here