Vets have issued a stern warning to dog owners in the North West as a potentially fatal disease which can cause sudden and unexpected death, particularly in younger dogs, spreads across the country.
Despite experts previously believing that it was restricted to more Southern regions, an increasing number of lungworm cases are being recorded in the North in areas not considered a risk but which are now under scrutiny by vets from Vets4Pets and Bayer. Over the past 10 years alone, the percentage of infected host animals in the North has increased from 0% to 7.4%.
With 2,762 recorded cases of the disease - which is causes by parasites spread by host dogs and foxes as well as intermediate hosts including slugs, snails, and even frogs - in the UK, the spread is caused by lungworm larvae being excreted by infected dogs or foxes. Intermediate hosts then eat the faeces, and if then a healthy dog eats the contaminated slug or snail, they too can become infected.
“The continued spread of the lungworm parasite means the UK dog population is increasingly at risk," said Dr Huw Stacey, director of clinical services at Vets4Pets. “The parasite can easily establish itself in a new area that wasn’t considered a traditional place for cases. “Foxes are a key indicator, as lungworm cases are likely to be mirrored in dogs so we can make an informed assessment of risk to dogs in areas of high numbers of infected foxes.
“The urbanisation of foxes in more and more areas across the UK means that even walking a dog only in a city or town cannot protect them from coming into contact with the parasite," Dr Stacey added. “It is believed that the average British garden contains over 20,000 slugs and snails, so the risk of dogs encountering a potential host of the lungworm parasite is high."
With even slug and snail slime being infectious - larvae released in the slime can survive for at least 15 days - dogs are at risk even if they do not come into contact with the compromised animals themselves, prompting Dr Stacey to warn of the potential perils of family pets "chewing grass, drinking from water bowls outside, and playing with toys and sticks that have been in the garden overnight."
The symptoms of the malady are hard to identify as many dogs show no signs of infection for months, but the main telltale indicators are coughing and breathing difficulties as well as weight loss, vomiting, diarrhoea, tiredness, blood clotting, or excessive bleeding from small wounds and changes in behaviour. Signs, however, can vary wildly from dog to dog.
With the company having published an up-to-date map of the recorded cases of lungworm, Bayer's senior brand manager Donna Tomlinson said: “Educating pet owners is essential, but raising awareness amongst vets is equally as important, particularly in areas like the North of England. Our map up-to-date is the best resource for dog owners to be aware of where and when cases are highest.”
Focusing on prevention, Dr Stacey added: “The disease is completely preventable: use worming tablets or spot-on treatments. Not all worming treatments are effective against lungworm though, so visit your vet for advice. Worming every three months will not be effective at preventing this parasite [but] the outcome for an affected dog in most cases is very good if it is diagnosed quickly and the dog receives prompt treatment."
Check if there are cases of lungworm in the local area at www.lungworm.co.uk/lungworm-map.