A mysterious and highly fatal canine disease known as Alabama rot is on the rise in the UK.
According to a report in the Independent, 29 cases of the infectious condition have been confirmed so far this year; already more than half the number identified in all of 2017. A total of 149 cases have been noted since the disease was first observed in the UK in 2012.
All dog breeds are susceptible, and the only region of Great Britain and Ireland not yet affected is Scotland (you can check confirmed cases in your local area here).
Despite its rarity (there are about 8.5 million pet pooches in the UK, translating to an incidence of roughly 0.00001%), Alabama rot has escalated into a veterinary crisis in past years. The reason for the overblown response is our complete lack of a treatment or an understanding of what causes the disease.
Formally called idiopathic cutaneous and renal glomerular vasculopathy (CRGV), Alabama rot was first identified in American racing greyhounds in the 1980s. Disease progression typically begins with the appearance of a rash or ulcers on the legs, paws, chest, occasionally the mouth, and/or abdomen, caused by the formation of many tiny blood clots in the skin’s vessels.
At this point, many dogs recover on their own, naturally, or can be cured with early veterinary intervention. In other cases, however, the clots quickly become so severe that kidney tissue starts dying, leading to the first stages of kidney failure.
Outward signs of kidney failure are vomiting, fatigue, and reduced hunger. Chances of survival are sadly very slim after the kidneys have become involved, though there are UK-based clinics specializing in emergency care for these cases.
Back when the disease was first described, researchers believed they had pinpointed the cause as an overblown immune reaction to toxins from the E. coli bacteria, transmitted through poorly prepared raw dog food.
In the UK, however, no association between E. coli and CRGV cases has been found. Without a bacterial smoking gun to form an effective vaccine and treatment around, all dog owners can do is nervously monitor their pet’s health.
For unknown reasons, whatever pathogen causes CRGV is more common in the environment during winter and spring, thus explaining the current outbreak. And anecdotal evidence of dogs falling ill after walking in muddy forests suggests that the causative organism may live in or around wet soil.
Thankfully, after six years of research dead-ends, a possible breakthrough may be on the horizon. The Independent reported in January 2018 that a fish veterinarian has zeroed in on the aquatic bacteria Aeromonas hydrophila after reading a 1995 case study. After analyzing samples from 29 affected dogs, Dr Fiona Macdonald is fairly confident that the toxic microorganism is CRGV's long-awaited culprit, though confirmation will require more evidence.