You may have seen posts on social media or pet websites recently about the possibility of a new vomiting bug hitting UK dogs. Coming hard on the heels of the Coronavirus outbreaks from Wuhan in China, people are not unreasonably worrying about a new (and potentially dangerous) outbreak of an unknown disease. Some people have linked it to vaccination, others think it might just be coincidence. So what’s going on? 

Where has the story come from?

Over the last week or two, vets across the midlands and North of England have been reporting unusual numbers of vomiting dogs coming into their clinics. These reports are coming from as far apart as Oxford, Derbyshire and Liverpool. Other areas of the country don’t (yet) seem to be reporting such a sudden uptick in canine sickness.

Why is this different from all the other vomiting dogs do?

It’s true, dogs do vomit a lot! In the majority of cases, though, they’ve eaten something nasty (and possibly rotten), and then when they’ve got it out of their system, they feel better and bounce back. In other cases, they’ve been exposed to a poison, or have a foreign body.

This disease, however, seems quite different in two important ways. Firstly, dogs vomit very forcefully and repeatedly – 5 times in 12 hours, and often with “projectile force”. This isn’t common in dogs, except those with a blockage – and that isn’t what these dogs have.

The second unusual finding is that these dogs stay “unwell” for a lot longer than we’d expect. Normally, a dog with gastroenteritis (some infection or irritation to the gut) will be sick for 24-48 hours, and then bounce back. However, these dogs seem to be refusing food for a prolonged period after the vomiting has stopped – and are taking 5-10 days to recover.

What are the symptoms?

  • Repeated, often violent, vomiting (5+ times in 12 hours).
  • Possibly diarrhoea (described, charminly, as “gravy-like”).
  • Vomiting may stop and then start again.
  • Loss of appetite even after the vomiting has stopped.
  • Dullness and lethargy for 2-3 days after the vomiting starts.

Is it curable?

At the moment, we don’t know what the cause is – so there’s no “cure”. However, fortunately, almost all the affected dogs do seem to be making a full recovery, with supportive treatment. 

Can it spread from dog to dog?

While we don’t know for sure, we are seeing some evidence that dogs do seem to be passing it from one to another. This isn’t conclusively proven yet, though. For example, it might be that 2 affected dogs were both exposed to the same toxin, say, rather than sharing a virus. However, if true, it would suggest that we’re dealing with a new disease outbreak.

Does vaccination prevent it?

No – vaccinated dogs are also getting sick.

Does vaccination cause it?

Again, we don’t know for sure – but it seems unlikely, as early reports suggest that unvaccinated dogs are also getting ill. More to the point, the major vaccines haven’t changed in the last six months, and yet this appears to be a new outbreak.

So what is it?

At the moment, the smart money is on some virus – a sort of “doggy norovirus”, if you like. Fortunately, it does appear to be dog-specific (so far, all the evidence suggests that people aren’t at risk). 

However, it could also be a bacterium, a toxin, or even random chance – it might just be a coincidence that so many dogs have tummy upsets all at the same time. I don’t think it’s likely, but we can’t rule it out yet.

OK, then what’s being done about it?

The Small Animal Veterinary Surveillance Network, organised by Liverpool University, are collecting information about all suspected cases. Vets and owners can submit the details, and the more information they have the better!

UPDATE 17th February:

SAVSNET at Liverpool University would like to stress that they would like samples submitted (through your vet!) from any cases that meet the criteria, for microbiological testing to try and identify the cause(s). Please do not submit samples yourselves though – go through your vet and if necessary they can report cases and submit samples safely (and legally).

UPDATE 4th May:

SAVSNET have closed the research now. They have thanked everyone who submitted details; you can read their interim conclusions here, although a final report has probably been delayed by the human COVID outbreak.

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