An incurable dog disease, which can spread to humans, is now spreading between canines in the UK for the first time.
Brucella canis, a bacterial infection, can lead to infertility, lameness and pain in dogs.
Most cases in the UK have previously been isolated incidents among animals imported from areas like Eastern Europe, where the disease is endemic.
But Government experts today revealed that they have spotted the first known case of the disease spreading among animals in the UK, albeit at low levels. Officials spotted the linked cases among dogs in kennels.
Only two people in the UK have been infected with Brucella canis as of July this year, health chiefs say. But cases among dogs have skyrocketed, with a record 91 already spotted this year, officials say.
Brucella canis is a dog disease found mainly in animals imported from Eastern Europe, it can also infect people (stock image)
Dr Christine Middlemiss, chief veterinary officer at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), told The Telegraph: ‘We have had spread of a case in the UK to another dog in the UK. It is through breeding in kennels.
‘There is not a lot – there is very little. But that is new for us.’
These UK-native cases of Brucella canis came from British dogs that had either had contact with an imported dog or were the offspring of an imported dog.
This means the disease isn’t considered endemic in the UK and is still officially classified as low risk.
Human Animal Infections and Risk Surveillance (HAIRS), a cross-Government group, today published a report on the risk Brucella canis poses.
HAIRS found that there is a ‘very low’ risk of someone in the population becoming infected.
However, dog breeders, people who work at vets or kennels and owners of infected dogs, are slightly more at risk of being exposed — but this is still classed as ‘low’, the HAIRS report states.
The group also found while the health risks of a Brucella canis infection were generally low, severe cases with life threatening complications had been reported and immunocompromised individuals could be at greater risk.
Only two cases in people in the UK have been confirmed.
The first was detected after attending hospital for their symptoms, while the second was found in an asymptomatic person working at a vets who was routinely tested after contact with an infected dog.
HAIRS recommended that dog breeders and charities importing dogs from overseas should carry out pre-export testing for the disease.
They also advised that vets treating dogs imported from overseas use appropriate PPE to help minimise the risk of a potential infection.
Dr Middlemiss said the Government was currently considering introducing a mandatory testing requirement for dogs imported from Brucella canis hotspots.
‘We are gathering the evidence, various risk assessments are contributing to that evidence and we will consider it,’ she said.
While Brucella canis infection is not a death sentence for animals, it is considered a life-long disease, with no cure.
This is because the bacteria behind the disease can remain dormant in the dog even after treatment, meaning they remain potentially infectious.
Therefore, the only way to guarantee onward transmission of the disease is euthanasia.
HAIRS said the decision on euthanasia is a matter for the owner of the animal and their vet and a willingness to accept the risks posed by continual exposure to the animal.
Brucella canis infections among dogs in the UK has been on the rise.
The bacterial infection can jump to people though severe disease is rare. Pictured the Brucella canis under a microscope
There were just 9 cases in 2020, but this rose to 36 the following year and increased to 55 in 2022.
As of July this year 91 cases have been identified in the UK, according to HAIRS.
Clinical information was available for 22 of the cases, with 19 dogs having no symptoms, one having inflammation of the spine and other two having back pain.
All but one of these dogs had been imported into the UK, with most coming from Romania (14).
The remaining case came from a puppy at an unlicensed breeding premises in Wales, where 21 dogs were also subsequently found to have the infection.
All other cases found so far this year were in imported dogs.
HAIRS said a rise in awareness of the disease among British vets, and therefore testing for it, is likely behind the increase in cases.
Tests have also increased with 5,773 carried out between January and July this year, compared to just 1,332 in 2018.
Romania is one of the biggest sources of imported dogs into the UK, with over 70,000 animals imported to Britain in 2020 and 2021.
Only 10,000 animals were imported from last year Romania due to concerns of rise in diseases resulting from the conflict in neighbouring Ukraine.
Signs of Brucella canis in dogs include infertility, swollen testes in male dogs, lethargy, premature aging and lameness from back pain.
However, some dogs may show no obvious signs of infection.
In people, Brucella canis generally produces mild and general flu-like symptoms that can make it difficult to diagnose.
The disease can also strike years after initial infection and may occasionally come back recurrently over several years.
There have also been reports of dangerous complications resulting from a Brucella canis infection in people.
These include serious infections of the heart, bone, brain tissue and blood. However, no fatal case of Brucella canis in people has been recorded.
Transmission of the disease between people is theoretically possible through routes like blood transfusion but there are no known cases of this occurring in medical literature.
Dr Middlemiss told MailOnline that: ‘We continue to work closely with our colleagues at UKHSA, dog welfare groups 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.’