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Alabama Rot and Lyme Disease: Two rare dog diseases on the rise in the UK

New data indicates that Alabama Rot, a serious disease affecting dogs, may be taking a foothold in the UK and that Lyme disease, a bacterial disease spread by ticks, is on the rise, too. The risk to your dog from either of these remains very low, but it is nonetheless important to understand the symptoms and be able to recognize the warning signs should your pet come into contact with either, potentially life-threatening conditions.

Founder of Vetsure and qualified Vet Dr Ashley Gray MA VetMB PhD MRCVS gives his take on the serious dog diseases, Alabama Rot and Lyme Disease. 

January 2018.

Alabama rot

What is Alabama Rot?

Alabama rot is the common term for cutaneous and renal glomerular vasculopathy (CRGV). It is a mysterious disease which is hard to identify and sadly, very difficult to treat. Since December 2012, there have been 122 confirmed, 22 unconfirmed and 35 suspected cases in the UK, with 37 cases in 2017 (over double compared to 2016) and 2 already in 2018. The latest cases occurring in Sussex and Somerset. The disease is thought to have hit 31 counties in total.

Alabama rot was first identified amongst Grey Hounds in the state of Alabama in the 1980s. After this first flare up, the number of reported cases dwindled and as no clinical research was carried out, the disease was almost relegated to history. Because no one has been able to determine what causes the disease, it is now only recognisable by its collection of clinical symptoms.

Since 2012, a small number of dogs have been presented with clinical signs very similar to those associated with Alabama rot. The most serious outbreak was in the New Forrest region of Hampshire but there have also been reported cases in Manchester, Dorset, Surrey, Somerset and several other counties as well.

What causes Alabama Rot?

As mentioned, the causes of Alabama Rot are still unknown and we don’t yet know if it can pass between dogs, either. What we do know, is that the strain afflicting the UK is not limited to any particular breed, body weight, sex or age, and the disease affects the skin and kidneys.

There has been some speculation that walking dogs in particular areas of the countryside may be a contributing factor, but the Forestry Commission has yet to warn of any specific sites being dangerous, reassuring dog owners by saying “Many thousands of dogs are walked in the countryside every day and it is important to remember that only a very small number of dogs have been affected.”

Worryingly, though, is that once infected, pets can die within 3 days so the severity of the disease must not be underestimated, however rare it is.

How to prevent Alabama Rot

There are no specific steps you can take to prevent your dog from contracting the disease, but there is some evidence of seasonal fluctuation, with most cases appearing in Autumn and Winter.

The London Royal Veterinary state that 60% of all cases happen in the first 3 months of the year.

It is suspected the disease spreads from muddy and wooded areas, and particularly areas with high levels of stagnant water – dog owners who do walk their dogs in these places are advised to wash off any mud as soon as possible, and of course, keep close control of their dogs at all times to monitor where they go.

What are the symptoms of Alabama Rot?

Importantly, you should always keep a lookout for the first sign of Alabama Rot, which is skin sores that have not been caused by a physical injury. These sores can present as lesions, swelling, a patch of red skin, or may be open and ulcer-like. The sores are most commonly found below the knee or elbow or occasionally on the stomach or face. Usually, this will cause localised hair loss and the dog will begin licking the wound. These lesions will be followed – between two and seven days later – with outward symptoms of kidney failure: reduced appetite, fatigue, and vomiting.

Alabama Rot treatment

If you have any concerns you should get your dog to the vet as soon as possible. They will be able to carry out tests to identify kidney failure but you can help by keeping detailed records of any signs of illness your dog has shown, this will help them diagnose your dog’s illness, whatever it may be.

If it turns out your dog has contracted Alabama Rot, the best outcomes seem to be achieved by catching it early and the animal receiving high-quality veterinary care. Whilst some infected dogs do survive the treatments of skin sores and kidney failure, unfortunately, many do not – it is estimated that treatment is only successful in around 20-30% of cases.

It is important, however, not to get overly worried by this as the percentage of dogs in the UK who have contracted this disease is truly minuscule. Though, what is vital, is that you understand the problem and know what to look out for, should your dog come into contact with it, as time plays a large part in successfully treating the disease.

Lyme disease in dogs UK

How does Lyme disease affect dogs?

Lyme disease – conspicuous when contracted by humans because of its bullseye rash – can also be deadly to dogs, although the primary symptom is lameness.

Lyme disease affects up to 65,000 people a year in Europe and around 3,000 in the UK alone. Britain has 20 native tick species which, according to Public Health England, have been found in twice as many parts of the country compared to a decade ago. Greater London has a seemingly much denser population of ticks, which is attributed to the number of dog walkers and urban deer.

The Big Tick Project, launched by naturalist Chris Packham, have created an interactive map from their survey results showing the prevalence of ticks across different areas of the UK. Ticks have recently claimed a high profile victim in former England rugby captain Matt Dawson which resulted in him needing heart surgery.

There has been a 560% increase in cases of the disease affecting dogs, with 99 reported in 2015 alone. These reported cases are thought to be just the tip of the iceberg. NHS data also reveals that the number of diagnosed cases amongst people increased fourfold between 2001 and 2013.

More recently in the UK, in the second quarter of 2017 there were 283 confirmed cases of Lyme disease, compared to 170 cases in the same quarter the year before. Part of the increase is being attributed to the warmer winters and wetter summers we are experiencing. A lack of awareness amongst dog owners can be attributed to contributing to the problem too, with 14% of dog owners saying that they are not protecting their animals from dangerous parasites.

Unknowingly therefore, people could be putting themselves and their family at risk of contracting Lyme disease as dogs can bring infected ticks into households. The tick must be attached to the dog for around 48 hours in order to transmit the disease and the disease itself is difficult to detect in dogs because the symptoms can come and go and may easily be mistaken for other ailments.

Symptoms of Lyme Disease in Dogs

Lyme disease in dogs can cause a rash, loss of energy, raised temperature, lameness, fever, swollen lymph joints and a reduced appetite, but it does not cause the recognisable rash only seen in humans. The symptoms in dogs usually occur much later after the bite than in humans, with the most prominent being temporary but recurrent lameness caused by the joint inflammation.

If Lyme disease is left untreated it can also cause damage to kidneys and the nervous system, and kidney disease is more prevalent in Labrador and Golden Retrievers, Shetland Sheepdogs, and Bernese Mountain Dogs.

How to prevent Lyme disease in dogs

There are a number of vaccines available for dogs that claim to prevent or reduce the risk of Lyme disease, however, some vets have criticised the efficacy of these and do not recommend them. You should always seek your vet’s advice specific to your dog and circumstances. Many of the options available require a prescription.

The most effective preventative measure is tick control, such as using topicals, collars, and insecticides that repel them when your dog is walking in wooded and moorland areas. Humans should wear long sleeves and tuck socks into their trousers when dog walking in these high-risk locales and of course, always check yourself and your dog when you get home. Ticks cannot fly and jump, so can only attach and bite when brushed against. Hedgehogs and foxes are also common carriers, so, unfortunately, dogs in urban areas are also at risk.

If you do find a tick on your dog, the first thing to do is to get it removed as soon as possible – while this must be done quickly, it must also be done properly and ideally with the advice of a vet. It is easy to remove the body, but if the mouth is left in it can cause an abscess or infection. There are plenty of home-remedy solutions, such as using matches or Vaseline, but it is always best to seek veterinary advice.

What to do if your dog is diagnosed with Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is diagnosed with a blood test and requires a relatively simple treatment of antibiotics lasting between 14 and 30 days. However, it is possible for your dog to relapse after this treatment and they should be monitored carefully. Where the disease causes acute pain, such as in joints, your vet may recommend a pain relieving treatment in addition to the antibiotic.

A small but growing risk

Both Lyme disease and Alabama rot affect a very small number of dogs each year, but the number of reported cases is growing. The risks for Lyme disease are mostly between late Spring and Autumn when the tick population is highest, so now is the time to be particularly vigilant. If left untreated, Lyme disease can be a serious and debilitating condition which can cause long term problems.

Alabama Rot is far more difficult to treat than Lyme disease and must be caught early for treatment to be effective. So if you suspect your dog might be suffering from the disease you should take them to a vet immediately.

Finally, for peace of mind ensure that you have good quality insurance that includes cover for illness as well as accidents to cover the potentially expensive treatment.