Do I need to worry about “Alabama Rot”?

You may have read in the news recently of another cluster of dogs affected with the exotically named “Alabama Rot”. Also known as “Cutaneous and Renal Glomerular Vasculopathy” (CRGV), this condition is still poorly understood. As a result, there’s a lot of worry and speculation, and vets are receiving increasing numbers of panic-stricken phone-calls from dog owners! So, what do we actually know about CRGV?

What is it?

Firstly, let’s specify what it isn’t – for example, despite excitable media reports, it isn’t a “flesh eating bug”. Nor is it a “superbug” or a variant of the Ebola (or any other) virus.

Technically speaking, it is a form of thrombotic microangiopathy, a condition where blood clots form in the small blood vessels in the body, blocking off blood supply. For some reason, the skin and the kidneys are most sensitive; without a blood supply, the tissue dies, causing ulcers on the skin, and failure of the kidneys.

Is it a new disease?                                     

Not exactly – it was first diagnosed in the United States in the 1980s. However, the first cases in the UK were detected in November 2012; since then, cases have been seen from across the country (there’s a map of confirmed and suspected cases here). It is most common in the winter and spring – most cases are detected between November and May.

What causes it?

No-one knows. It is probable that a bacterial toxin (i.e. a poison made by bacteria, that causes disease even in the absence of the bacteria themselves) is involved, perhaps from E. coli; however, this has not yet been confirmed, and tests for E. coli shigatoxin (one possible culprit) have proved negative. There is, however, no evidence that it is caused by a toxic plant, heavy metal poisoning, or genetics (although it was once thought that only Greyhounds and other sighthounds were predisposed, this is not now thought to be the case). It has been suggested that contaminated pet food may be involved, but this seems improbable – there just aren’t enough affected dogs for that to be likely.

So what are the symptoms?

Initially, the first sign is an ulcer or wound, usually on the legs. They typically look like small, round sores and usually occur on the legs, but may also be found on the body, face or tongue. The lesions range from 5 to 50mm (1/5” – 2”) in diameter.

1-9 days later (usually about 3), affected dogs will usually suffer acute kidney failure. The symptoms are of increased thirst, changes in urination (increased amounts of dilute urine, or in more severe cases, reduction or absence of urine production). This is accompanied by lethargy, anorexia, vomiting, depression and often bad breath (which may smell metallic). Once clinical signs of renal failure occur, the prognosis for recovery is poor.

Dogs that, for whatever reason, do not progress beyond the skin lesion stage have a better prognosis, assuming no further complications develop. Overall, half of the dogs affected will suffer abnormal bleeding (thrombocytopaenia); about a third may show some degree of jaundice (yellow gums and eyes); and one in five are anaemic (with pale gums and difficulty catching their breath).

How do dogs get it?

Firstly, it doesn’t seem to be contagious from dog to dog, or to or from humans. The current thinking is that there is an environmental link – most cases are associated with walking in muddy woodlands, and it may be that there is a toxin in the mud that is absorbed by the dogs.

How can it be avoided?

As we don’t know the exact cause, avoidance is difficult. However, thorough washing of your dog’s coat after walking in woodland (especially if muddy… like everywhere this year!) is a sensible precaution that should reduce the risk. In addition, it is likely that certain places pose a higher risk than others; if there has been a case in your area, it is probably wise to avoid areas where the affected dog(s) were walked in the days before they were diagnosed. It’s also really important to check your dogs over regularly – not just for sores or ulcers, but also for cuts, ticks, mats of hair or other injuries.

How do I know if my dog is affected?

Fortunately, most dogs with skin lesions don’t have CRGV! However, if your dog does have any strange or unexplained sores or wounds, it’s important to get them checked out by your vet – in the vast majority of cases, they’ll be able to demonstrate a far less worrying condition. They can also do blood tests to check for kidney problems – although as it is often several days before these show up, repeating the blood tests in 48 hours may be necessary.

How can CRGV be treated?

Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment. However, treatment of the skin ulcers will minimise the risk of secondary infection; and if kidney failure occurs or appears imminent, hospitalisation and intensive care will maximise the affected dog’s chance of survival. In some cases, referral to a specialist hospital may be suggested, to give your dog the best available care and therefore chance of recovery.

How dangerous is it?

As a rough estimate, the condition is fatal in 80-90% of cases. However, early diagnosis and treatment is thought to maximise the chances of survival.

Fortunately, it is still a very rare disease – in the last three months, there have only been 4 cases (in Staffordshire, Hampshire, Greater London and Lancashire). If you are concerned your dog may be affected, contact your vet for advice – however, the majority of skin lesions and sores will be due to cuts, insect bites or grazes, and are nothing to worry about. It’s also important to remember that, even if your dog is affected, prompt diagnosis and rapid treatment gives them a much better chance of survival.

For more information please visit Anderson Moores Veterinary Specialists who are taking the lead in treatment and advice on the condition.

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8 thoughts on “Do I need to worry about “Alabama Rot”?

    1. Hi Joyce, good question, thanks for asking! Unusual bleeding in this context can occur because the clotting components of the blood are ‘used up’ within the veins. Therefore if haemorrhage does occur for some reason, there are fewer clotting components to stem that bleeding. Hope that makes it clear.

    1. Hi Joyce, good question, thanks for asking! Unusual bleeding in this context can occur because the clotting components of the blood are ‘used up’ within the veins. Therefore if haemorrhage does occur for some reason, there are fewer clotting components to stem that bleeding. Hope that makes it clear.

  1. I am due to have surgery in 2 weeks time and at pre-op information session we are advised to avoid infection. We are dog sitting and the owners told us today that the dog may have Alabama rot. It has leg lesions. Is there any risk for me?

    1. Hi Carol. We can appreciate your concern. Owners and/or people in contact with dogs that have Alabama Rot have not been affected by the illness, but we’d recommend speaking to your Doctor for their thoughts as to whether it’s sensible for you to be looking after the dog at this time.

    1. It’s difficult to know Ivan – currently, there’s no real understanding as to what causes it, the only similarity between cases is that dogs have been walked through muddy areas.

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