Alabama Rot photo
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In January 2014, vets in and around the New Forest area of the United Kingdom became concerned about a spate of dog death reports, because all the pets that died seemed to have similar symptoms although the underlying cause of illness could not be determined.

It was eventually agreed among professionals and other agencies involved that this outbreak could be an alarming condition known as Alabama Rot, which is a disease caused by toxins derived from a rare form of E.coli bacteria. It has only very rarely ever been seen in the United Kingdom. Even more disconcerting… it’s a condition that, as yet, has no known cure and causes death from acute renal failure in about a quarter of all cases.

The Origins of Alabama Rot

The illness was first detected in the USA in the 1980s. Its scientific name is idiopathic renal glomerular vasculopathy and originally only seemed to affect greyhounds and great danes. However, it is now believed Alabama Rot has since managed to traverse breeds and may now be affecting dogs of all types. According to the Centre for Veterinary Education in Sydney, the disease seems to resemble hemolytic-uremic syndrome in humans, which is closely associated with the bacteria Escherichia coli (E.coli).

The Greyhound Association of America originally concluded the disease infects dogs fed meat derived from diseased, disabled, dying or dead cattle, that were then inappropriately processed as an ingredient intended for dog food. While this may well be one form of contamination, it is now considered likely there are many other routes through which dogs can contract the infection.

The UK Outbreak

Although the media has been full of reports about the largest and most recent outbreak, it is known that a smaller epidemic occurred in December 2012 and continued until it seemed to vanish without trace in March 2013. The original wave of cases occurred when local vets recognized the symptoms of Alabama Rot in several dogs that had recently been taken for walks in the New Forest. Investigation and testing was undertaken at the time by various organizations, but without success. The source was never identified and the outbreak seemed to subside without anyone understanding why or how it had started or, for that matter, why it had suddenly stopped.

While the New Forest is certainly the epicenter of the outbreak, there are other cases reported in Cornwall, County Durham, Nottinghamshire, Worcestershire, Norfolk and Surrey. There is huge concern among professionals that a wider and larger surge of dogs becoming ill and dying from this infection could be reported in the coming weeks and months. A total of 28 dogs are known to have died from the mysterious illness so far, which only appears to affect dogs and has not been seen in any other animal species.

Symptoms of the Illness

Some dogs contracting the infection are known to suffer from diarrhea and vomiting, but these are common symptoms of many ailments. The signs that set this infection apart from others are open lesions on a dog’s leg below the elbow or knee-joint and later on other parts of the body such as the paws, chest or face, usually within a week of them being walked in a likely contaminated area. The lesions are open wounds that do not heal. The lesions are not always easy to see beneath the coat, but dogs will know they are there and will try to lick them or paw at them, so it is best to investigate and check the skin area more closely if you see your dog displaying this kind of behavior. The lesions begin as red and inflamed spots, eventually becoming raised open wounds.

The advice dog owners have been given is to seek veterinary help within 24 hours if they find any lesions on their pet, regardless of whether they are on the legs or any other part of the canine body – and regardless of whether they develop within or later than a week of being walked in known problem locations. Early attention seems to help, which is consistent with the prognosis of serious toxin contact. Dogs seem to have died due to delayed treatment or where pets already had impaired immune systems or were suffering from other infections. However, the repercussions of Alabama Rot in dogs remain uncertain and inconsistent, because the degree of an attack varies regardless of predisposing health.

Deaths have usually resulted from acute kidney failure. Once kidney failure takes hold, it becomes progressive and has fatal consequences. In addition to the lesions, some dogs have suffered from thrombocytopaenia (a low blood platelet count) and haemolytic anaemia (a low red blood cell count), depression, lethargy and reduced appetite or a complete refusal to eat anything.

What Is Being Done To Find The Source

The Forestry Commission has erected warning notices throughout the New Forest giving advice to dog owners and dog walkers. Two dogs walked in the Tiptoe area and Wilverley inclosure are among the most recent cases, although earlier cases included dogs walked in a much wider geographic area.

Extensive research, post-mortem examination and tests performed on blood, urine and feces, which included bacterial, viral and heavy metal testing, has been undertaken, but to date these tests have shown no underlying identifying cause for the fatalities. Water testing has also been undertaken within the New Forest, but to no avail and the Environment Agency has now ruled out chemical contamination of water supplies. Histopathological evaluation (microscopic examination) of kidney tissue from post-mortem samples from affected dogs by specialist pathologists in the UK and the US has so far provided the only clue about what is happening, as the results show changes similar to those identified in greyhounds diagnosed with idiopathic cutaneous and renal glomerular vasculopathy. This is why Alabama Rot is without doubt the most likely culprit.

The New Forest District Council, together with the Forestry Commission, local vets, specialist laboratories, the Environment Agency and Animal Health Trust are collaborating to find answers to this most puzzling and distressing series of events. A scientific paper is now being drafted by the Anderson Moores Veterinary Specialists, who saw the first case in 2012 and have dealt with several of the more recent cases. There are some sources that believe the most recent spate of cases are the result of an older and previously established water or soil based toxin that has now been disturbed by months of heavy rain. If the source remains elusive, the fear is this could again fade away as spring and summer approach, only to return again later in the year when the weather again turns torrential.

While the number of fatalities is small compared with the many thousands of dogs being walked in the New Forest area each year, they represent a significant focus of cases related to the devastation historically caused by Alabama Rot. Let’s hope the agencies and people involved in fighting this outbreak find answers soon ... and again make dog walking a pleasure instead of a peril.