Trying to keep imported diseases at bay

01 February 2014, at 12:00am

Veterinary Practice continues its coverage of the 2013 London Vet Show with reports on two of the topical presentations

IMPORTED disease should be a primary consideration for any practice assessing dogs coming in from abroad. Transport figures have hit an all-time high with more than 140,000 dogs entering the UK in 2012. That figure is unlikely to diminish following the removal of strict testing regimes that year.

Glasgow’s professor of small medicine, Ian Ramsey, says this drastic rise in numbers will expose more of the UK’s dog population to disease. DEFRA’s lighter touch approach means leishmaniasis or, in the worst case scenario, rabies could gain a foothold in Britain.

Speaking at the London Vet Show, he talked about the lack of testing and a reduction in checks at UK ports of entry. “Owners are shipping their dogs to all parts of the UK,” said Ian. “The number of cases has risen if the balance has not. It is still far and away leishmaniasis and Ehrlichiosis that are the main imported diseases, with some babesiosis and heartworm.”

There are now dogs infected with the leishmania parasite that have never left the UK. “These dogs have been in contact with one that has been abroad,” he explained. “It has spread from dog to dog through close exposure, but most cases are found in dogs that have visited southern Europe.”

There is no cure for canine leishmaniasis and naïve UK dogs infected by a sandfly bite abroad take two to three months to show clinical signs and around 18 months to show medically serious signs. A lifetime chronic condition, it becomes progressively more serious with weight loss, pyrexia, lymphadenopathy, anaemia and shifting lameness as symptoms.

DEFRA’s Dog and Cat Travel Risk Information scheme (DACTARI) was a reporting scheme for diseases such as leishmaniasis. That has now ceased. “The government does not worry about leishmania but it worries about rabies,” said Ian, and with evident reason.

Rabies is severely infectious to humans. Without preventive medicine it is fatal and is transmitted most often through dog bites. “It can jump to humans and the real worry is that we get street dog or fox rabies in the UK.”


The Pet Travel Scheme (PETS) was launched in 2000 to allow quarantined entry for a limited range of countries and species.

Prof. Ramsey attended BVA Council when PETS was initially discussed: “The feeling at the time was that it might cover a few thousand dogs coming into the UK each year. Animals that were coming in would be vaccinated and tested to show that they were immune before they entered the country.”

In 2004 the pet passport was introduced to speed up and simplify travel between EU member countries and in 2012 the six-month quarantine system was removed for imported animals. The UK government felt that vastly improved rabies vaccines and treatments made the practice unnecessary.

Look at the effects of this speeding up and the numbers of imported animals are revealing. In 2000 when PETS was launched there were around 14,000 – “many more than anticipated,” said Ian. By 2004 that had increased to more than 65,000 and in 2008 it was more than 100,000 animals. In 2012 the figure jumped to 140,000 dogs.

Despite the best protections, France has seen regular rabies outbreaks since 2000. “Don’t think it cannot happen,” said Ian. 

“Animals are regularly brought in from north Africa and presented to the local vet with disease. Most recently an infected kitten was found on the outskirts of Paris, illegally imported from Morocco.”

An outbreak in 2008 shows why the disease is so dangerous. The dog was initially imported to Belgium from Gambia and died of rabies across the border in France. “They worked out how many people it had come into contact with and nearly 20 people needed post-exposure prophylaxis,” he said.


For rabies to enter the UK it would inevitably have to be via a smuggled animal. Local vets are those most likely to identify any disease and anyone who suspects rabies should contact their local divisional office.

“You don’t have to have a strong suspicion,” said Ian. “Perhaps the owners don’t know where the dog came from, they act shifty or mention a country where rabies is a problem.”

Keep the animal in a cage and do not refer it. Do not handle or euthanase the animal. If somebody is bitten, then aggressive first aid is the best defence. Wash the wound immediately using a strong soap solution or 45% ethanol. If the dog has punctured the skin, then take a 20ml syringe, blast wash the wound and then seek medical advice.

No flashing lights

“The divisional veterinary office doesn’t arrive with blue flashing lights,” said Ian. “They have a checklist and 99% of the time there is no problem. Usually you are free to carry on as normal and cases are resolved quickly. Don’t be the vet who ignored the problem.”

Prevention will always be the best protection even if it is imperfect. Any animals taken abroad must have rabies vaccination, but for more stealthy infections like leishmania, owner education is essential. “They should not walk their dog on the beach or in the woods at dawn or dusk when the sandfly that transmits the parasite is active,” he said.

Using insect repellents reduces exposure to the parasite and any subsequent dose the dogs might get from sandfly bites.

Treatment for leishmaniasis is painful and expensive. Injection of an antimonate compound plus administration of the drug allopurinol are most effective, but there are adverse reactions and most dogs relapse at some point.

A vaccine is available and is worth obtaining well in advance as it currently needs three doses, weeks apart. “It reduces the numbers of dogs that become infected and the parasite load in any dogs that do become infected,” said Professor Ramsey.