The threat to our pets from emerging and imported diseases has rarely been higher than it is now. This week, we have heard of the first dog to contract Monkeypox, and also, the news of the first human to contract Brucellosis from her pet in the UK for many years has also hit the press. Of these two cases, one was much more serious… but that one got far less media attention. I’m referring, of course, to a highly infectious zoonotic disease that we thought we had eliminated in the UK: Brucellosis. Unfortunately, this mini-outbreak was perfectly avoidable, but was still permitted to happen.

The headlines said it all really: “PET TRAGEDY I sobbed as I had to put down all 5 of my dogs after I was first person in UK to catch a rare disease from a rescue pup.” 

I’ve written before about the importance of controlling disease spread into the UK, but back in 2017 I didn’t anticipate the dramatic growth we’ve seen in a largely unregulated and ultra-high risk industry: international pet “rescue”. And now we have (another) 5 dead dogs and a sick human because of it.

What happened?

In brief, a Belarusian rescue dog was placed by a rescue organisation with a fosterer. Three days after arrival, the dog aborted, and infected the fosterer and her other 4 dogs; all 5 dogs had to be euthanased and the fosterer is still receiving medical treatment for the infection. 

What is Brucellosis?

There are many different species of the Brucella bacteria – the form in cattle was locally eliminated in the UK in 1985, and is still a Notifiable Disease, but in dogs the most common type is Brucella canis

The bacteria primarily affect the reproductive tract, with abortion in pregnant females and orchitis (swelling and inflammation of the testicles) in males the most common signs. Surviving puppies are at high risk of “fading puppy syndrome”. However, a wide range of other symptoms also occur, including lethargy or tiredness,premature ageing, back pain and lameness, and lymph swelling; and many infected dogs appear healthy.

In humans, similar symptoms are seen.

How is Brucellosis transmitted?

The bacteria are primarily transmitted through reproductive fluids (including at mating, birth fluids, and the secretions of aborted puppies). However, blood and other body fluids (e.g. saliva, faeces, urine) may be infectious in some cases.

Can Brucellosis be treated?

There is no effective treatment in dogs that will reliably eliminate the bacteria. While antibiotics will suppress bacterial levels, apparently recovered dogs will often relapse and become infectious again (possibly without showing symptoms) in the future.

As a result, in most cases euthanasia is required to eliminate the risk to human health.

How can outbreaks be prevented?

Simple – stop importing infected dogs.

At the moment, although Brucellosis is a Reportable Disease in the UK, there is no mandatory requirement to test before or even after import – it will only be picked up and reported if a vet suspects the disease and sends off specific tests for it. In fact, the only health tests that are mandatory before importing a dog (as a pet or as a “rescue”) are for tapeworm and to ensure the dog is vaccinated against rabies.

So why do people import untested dogs?

This is where it’s worth discussing the international dog “rescue” industry. The sector is largely unregulated, and it is very difficult for a fosterer or buyer to know whether the organisation they are dealing with is responsible or not, or even if they are a legitimate rescue or a front for puppy smuggling.

Personally, I’m uncomfortable with importing rescued dogs from parts of the world where serious zoonotic diseases are endemic. However, if we’re going to do it, then we owe it to the dogs – and humans! – already here to make sure we’re not bringing in anything nasty. Sadly, too many rescues do not even attempt to confirm whether the dogs they place with often unsuspecting fosterers are carrying infectious diseases.

If you’re reading this and want to complain that not all rescues are like that – I know. But too many are. And without regulation, how is the client to know the difference between an organisation that has genuinely tested the dogs, and one that has saved money by not doing it, or even by faking test certificates?

What do we need to do?

We need mandatory testing before dogs are imported into the UK – all dogs, including (or especially) rescues. We need to confirm whether or not these dogs are infected with Brucella canis, Leishmaniasis and other “exotic” and unwanted diseases. This is within the capacity of the UK to enforce, now that we have left the EU. And hopefully, it will save us from more Brucella outbreaks, or even from anything nastier.

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