Brucellosis is a hot topic in the UK veterinary world currently. This bacterial disease can have serious consequences for both pets and people, and vets are on the front-line for diagnosis, prevention, management and control. Many veterinary surgeries and hospitals are putting certain controls in place to try and reduce risk to both staff, clients and patients – but are they right to do so?

What is brucellosis?

Brucellosis is a highly infectious disease, caused by the bacterium Brucella canis. It can affect dogs of all breeds, sizes and ages, although is most common in breeding dogs. It can also spread to humans and cause severe disease, especially in the young, elderly and immunocompromised. 

The risk to animal heath

Infection with Brucella canis can cause a range of symptoms in dogs. Many infected animals show no signs of illness, but can still transmit the disease. Others will become severely unwell. In pregnant female dogs, brucellosis can cause miscarriage or stillbirth of puppies, and affect fertility and uterine health. In male dogs, infection can result in infertility and testicular disease. But in all dogs, this bacterium can cause spinal pain, uveitis (swollen eyes), lethargy, swollen lymph nodes and kidney infections.

Brucella canis is spread between dogs mainly via bodily secretions, such as saliva, vaginal discharge, semen and urine. The bacterium can survive on surfaces in the home, and be transmitted through sniffing or licking at infected objects such as food and water bowls or bedding. 

The risk to human health

B. canis is a zoonosis – this means it can be transmitted from dogs to people. Infection via this route is not hugely common, but the consequences can be severe. Infection is usually through contact with infected bodily fluids, such as aborted material, vaginal discharge or birthing fluids. This means that people around infected dogs at time of birth, such as dog breeders or vets, are more at risk. Brucellosis can be transmitted via the person’s mouth, eyes, broken skin or through droplets in the air. The bacterium can also be found in milk, faeces, urine and saliva, although in much lower numbers, and can survive in the environment on surfaces and objects. 

Symptoms in humans are often fairly vague: fever, headache, back pain, fatigue and weight loss. If untreated, the disease can become chronic and more severe.

Treating brucellosis

Treatment for this disease is not easy. Antibiotics can control the infection, but there is no known cure or fully effective treatment. Neutering can also help control the risk of transmission, and manage the most common symptoms. However, current guidance from the Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA) recommends euthanasia of infected dogs: to prevent suffering and to reduce transmission of disease.

Why should we be worried?

Brucellosis is currently an uncommon disease in the UK. It is mainly seen in countries with high populations of stray dogs, as it is usually spread through breeding. However, case numbers of B. canis are rising rapidly, correlating with the huge increase in imported dogs.

According to the APHA, more than 66,000 dogs were imported into the UK in 2020, and there are likely to be many more who entered illegally. Currently, imported dogs do not need to undergo any form of health testing, they merely need a rabies vaccination and some worming treatment. 

Cases of brucellosis are rising rapidly in the UK. Before 2020, only three cases were recorded. Between 2020 and 2021 there were 87 recorded cases, and 54 in 2022. These numbers may well be the ‘tip of the iceberg’, as many infected dogs have no symptoms, and the disease has only recently become reportable. 

Brucella canis is known to be highly infectious. It is very likely that cases will continue to rise – and quickly. 

A recent case highlights the risk to both animals and humans. A dog foster carer took on a pregnant dog imported from Europe. She contracted brucellosis and was hospitalised for over two weeks. Three of her four dogs also became infected, and all dogs were euthanised. This was a tragic case, and many veterinary professionals are worried it will become a more common story if certain measures are not put into place.

Are changes being made?

The government is currently reviewing risk assessments for bacterial disease. Leading voices in the veterinary world, including renowned parasitologist Ian Wright, have called for stricter control on imported dogs, by making testing for diseases such as brucellosis compulsory.

Vets are obviously concerned with animal health and welfare, but they have a degree of responsibility for public health as well – and this includes them and their families. Dogs carrying Brucella canis are of risk to both staff, clients and patients when undergoing treatment at a veterinary surgery. This is why many vets are now imposing some new controls when dealing with dogs imported from abroad. This may include compulsory testing for brucellosis, barrier nursing to protect other patients and wearing protective equipment to protect staff. If you have a dog which has come from abroad, you may find vets unwilling to see your dog in non-emergency scenarios unless they have been tested for Brucella. 

These measures are not an over-reaction, or a punishment for those who chose to import dogs from overseas, but a sensible precaution when dealing with a highly infectious and potentially serious infection. Brucellosis is currently uncommon in the UK, and we all want to keep it that way. 

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