UK pet owners who take their animals on holiday to Europe are being alerted to the fact that their pets could bring back some unwelcome souvenirs in the form of diseases more often associated with the tropics. The advice comes from Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, whose TestApet diagnostic service, run in conjunction with the University of Liverpool, is available for vets who believe a pet may have contracted a disease abroad.
It was set up in 2000 in response to the introduction of the Government's Pet Travel Scheme which means that pets no longer have to be left behind while their owners head for the sun. Instead they can travel to all parts of Europe and even some countries further afield. But as with their human owners, foreign travel does carry risks. For example, dogs have been found to have contracted leishmaniasis, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis and heartworm disease. TestApet have detected 37 cases of leishmaniasis between January 2002 and August 2003.
Says Dr Jackie Barber, of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, who provides phone advice to TestApet clients: "The risk of becoming infected depends on where, when and for how long the dogs (and cats) go. Most of the parasitic diseases we are concerned with are carried by sandflies, mosquitoes and ticks, so the risk of being bitten by the flying insects will be higher in countries nearer the Mediterranean during summer evenings and the risk from ticks is greater in forests and on rough grazing land.
"Some of the diseases, such as babesiosis, can develop and kill within a couple of weeks whilst others may have long incubation periods of months or even years. So it is important that owners remember to let their vet know if their pet has ever traveled abroad, even a long time ago. Many of these diseases have vague clinical signs such as tiredness, anaemia, enlarged lymph glands, bleeding and loss of weight, so diagnostic tests will be needed to confirm whether your pet has got one or more of these diseases. Treatment can be complicated as few of the drugs needed are available in the UK and most have to be imported under special licence. But early treatment can save dogs with babesiosis although with leishmaniasis, whilst dogs may appear well, complete cure is unusual and most dogs relapse at some stage. People should also be aware that leishmaniasis can affect humans too."
But she says that pet owners should not panic. "Considering the number of animals which have entered the UK since the PETS scheme started, (over 120,000 dogs and cats between February 2000 and September 2003) only a very small proportion have developed these ’exotic’ infections. Simple precautions can greatly reduce the risk - examine your pet daily for ticks (especially around the head and feet) and remove any found, do not let your pet sleep outside at night unless screened by mosquito netting and visit your vet to get heartworm preventative drugs and tick and sandfly repellents.”
* Further information for pet owners and vets is available and may be downloaded from www.testapet.com