Puppy smugglers and foreign rescue animals blamed for surge in incurable dog disease

Brucella canis affects the sexual organs of dogs and is spread by contact with reproductive fluids - Sebastian Condrea/Moment RF
Brucella canis affects the sexual organs of dogs and is spread by contact with reproductive fluids - Sebastian Condrea/Moment RF

An incurable dog disease is surging in Britain amid warnings over the rising number of rescue animals being brought into the country.

Puppy smugglers and a pandemic puppy-buying boom are also being blamed for the surge in brucella canis cases.

The bacterial infection is untreatable in dogs, can spread to humans and the only recommended course of action is euthanasia of the animal. Infected dogs can still be infectious after neutering and while on a course of antibiotics.

The disease affects the sexual organs of dogs and is spread by contact with reproductive fluids and urine.

Official data from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) show that in the first three months of 2023 there were 22 separate clusters of brucella infection in the UK.

Figures have risen from nine in 2020 to 36 in 2021 and 55 in 2022, with the precise cause unknown. However, the majority (21 cases) of the 22 infection events so far this year have been in dogs that have been imported from abroad.

Romania’s 14 cases accounted for more than half of the imported dogs, with one apiece from Bosnia, Greece, Japan, Portugal, Russia, Serbia and Spain.

The rise has occurred at the same time as the pandemic puppy boom which saw people scramble to get dogs during lockdown.

More than 100 dogs were tested in three months by APHA and 43 dogs tested positive for the bacteria.

“Compared to the same period last year, the number of incidents in the first quarter for 2023 has increased more than two-fold,” the APHA said.

Professor Ian Jones, Professor of Virology at the University of Reading, told the Telegraph that the rise in cases is due largely to importation as it is not screened for health conditions.

The only health conditions a dog must meet before coming to Britain are a vaccination against rabies and a treatment for tapeworm.

“Brucella canis is very hard to eradicate other than putting the dog down, which owners are usually unwilling to do, so once it’s in and spreading the numbers can only increase,” Prof Jones said.

“Covid may have also had a role as there was a large increase in demand for dogs during and following lockdown and the recent increase in cases seen would fit with the timings.”

Health screening improved

He added that the main debate around brucella is not how dangerous it is as a disease and the threat it poses to humans, but to what extent border control of dogs should be strengthened and health screening improved.

One woman, Wendy Hayes, is the only known case of a person infected with brucella canis in the UK who caught it last year from an imported foster dog that whelped in her care. Ms Hayes had her own dogs euthanised in order to prevent the spread of the disease.

Veterinary guidance from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons states that because there is no treatment for the condition, dogs should be euthanised.

However, this is a decision that can not be enforced by a vet or the authorities and therefore is the decision of the owner. However, with many vet practices now owned by vast chains and improving documents, dogs can be left in a medical wilderness, as vets will refuse to treat an infected animal for the risk it poses to them.

Dr Paula Boyden, veterinary director at Dog’s Trust, told The Telegraph that she has “the utmost respect” for Ms Hayes’ decision.

The guidance instructs veterinarians to advise owners to put down their dog if infected but this has come under criticism itself.

Dr Louise Buckley, a veterinary nurse in Edinburgh of 25 years experience and a faculty member at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, has objected to the practice of enforcing brucella tests and only allowing euthanasia as a treatment.

‘Fear-based medicine’

Dr Buckley believes vets are being forced to peddle “fear-based medicine” opposed to evidence-based medicine and says the testing of brucella could lead to almost 9,000 imported dogs in the UK falsely testing positive for the disease and therefore being wrongly killed.

Dogs with brucella are often asymptomatic and otherwise healthy but advice is for euthanasia. Dr Buckley told the Telegraph that many tests are false positives, there are promising treatments for brucella being denied to owners, and that some dogs can spontaneously develop antibodies to the infection.

Dr Boyden, however, says the disease poses a risk to vets, as it is not mandatory for owners to declare their animal’s infection to new veterinarians, and wants to see stricter border controls to stop imported dogs being allowed in without a brucella test.

She also warned that leishmaniasis is on the rise in the UK. The condition is widespread in Europe and is carried by the sandfly, which is not found in the UK.

The UK is thought to be free of the disease but more cases are being identified, with experts concerned a new vector may have been found, potentially making it a tick-borne condition in the UK.

Dr Boyden wants to see the beleaguered Kept Animals Bill out of stagnation and implemented so more stringent biosecurity measures can be enforced on our borders.

“We know that there’s a lot of illegal activity, importing puppies and dogs into Great Britain,” Dr Boyden told the Telegraph.

“Particularly with puppies there are people that are exploiting it because it’s a very easy way of making a lot of money and the chances of being caught are low and the sanctions just aren’t there in terms of being a deterrent.”

Twilight zone of biosecurity

The recent Windsor Framework has also opened up more weaknesses in Britain’s defences against importing infected animals, allowing the Republic of Ireland-Northern Ireland border to become a twilight zone of biosecurity.

“The concern with the Windsor agreement is Ireland’s going to become prominent as a transit country,” Dr Boyden said.

“It’s a longer journey from mainland Europe but if smugglers come up from Europe into Ireland there’s no tracks and then they can easily get into Northern Ireland and then over to Great Britain.

“It is a concern that Ireland becomes more prominent as a transit country and it is something we need to be mindful about.

“The challenge from a veterinary standpoint, and from a disease perspective, is you really want to treat the island of Ireland as a unit. If you’ve got a disease-carrying tick, for example, it doesn’t know whether it’s in the north or the Republic, and I don’t mean that flippantly.

“That’s why, from a biosecurity perspective, you want to treat it as an individual unit but that obviously disadvantages the people of Northern Ireland.”

The Government is understood to be reviewing its risk assessment of Brucella canis.

A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesman said: “We take the risks posed by brucella canis very seriously – which is why we made the disease reportable to allow us to monitor the number of confirmed cases and update our risk assessments.

“We are continuing to work closely with dog owners and vets to minimise the risks posed and recommend prospective owners make sure any dog imported from regions where brucella canis is present is tested before arrival.”