Dog owners are increasingly concerned about a 'mystery virus' that seems to be affecting pets in Yorkshire, and may have spread further, with reports from Liverpool and inland North Eastern areas.
The illness apparently causes lethargy, vomiting and diarrhoea, and was first noted earlier this month in dogs who had been walked along certain parts of the Yorkshire coastline.
So far, however, while several veterinary practices have reported a jump in admissions for dogs with gastric problems, experts warn against jumping to conclusions as to the cause.
Speaking to Radio 4's PM, British Veterinary Association President Dr Justine Shotton said,
"We’ve heard reports from vets in the area who are really far inland and they are also seeing an increase in these kinds of cases in dogs that have never been to the beach, so I’m not sure yet if we have enough information to make that link."
Canine gastroenteritis is common, and usually mild, she added, "but some dogs may need hospitalisation with a drip. In the worst situations, it can become haemorrhagic, leading to secondary complications or even death, but that is very rare.”
“While pet owners are understandably worried, the cases may be part of a normal increase in gastroenteritis that vets see during the colder months."
She added that the VVA had seen a similar rise two years ago, and that the latest data from the University of Liverpool’s veterinary surveillance database suggested the current reports reflect normal seasonal variation.
“Our advice to concerned owners is to contact their local vet for prompt treatment if their dog shows any signs of illness, such as vomiting and diarrhoea.”
However, worried owner reports suggest that at least 150 dogs have currently been 'struck down' and that transmission may be from dog to dog.
Veterinary nurse Brogan Proud, of Yorkshire Coast Pet Care, has advised owners to avoid "taking pets on the beach for the foreseeable future" after many calls about ill dogs. She wrote on Facebook,
"I work within several practices up and down the North East coast and we have recently been inundated with dogs coming off the beaches with vomiting and diarrhoea.
Personally until the local authorities have got to the bottom of it I would not recommend taking your pets on the beach for the foreseeable future."
Areas where the illness has been reported include Scarborough, Whitby, Saltburn and Seaton Sluice, North Tyneside.
Proud added, "If your dog is showing symptoms please make the local authorities aware as well as seeking veterinary attention should your pet need it."
However, though some speculate that there may be toxins in the coastal waters, a spokesperson for Minster Veterinary Practice told The Metro, "We often, unfortunately, get waves of unwell pets with vomiting and diarrhoea around this time of year, just as in the summer we often get cases of kennel cough.
"Any cases that have had to be hospitalised due to vomiting and diarrhoea have responded to supportive care. My main advice to any pet owners would be that if your pet is unwell then seek veterinary attention. If we have a mild stomach upset, then a bland diet, little and often, is a good idea."
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has confirmed that it is communicating with the Animal and Plant Health Agency to investigate. So far, no direct link with beaches has been proven.
Yorkshire Live reported that Swanzdale Veterinary Care Centre in Scarborough, said: “We have seen several dogs who have not been anywhere near the beach or the sea becoming affected.”
“For now we would advise avoiding heavily dog-walked areas (which includes the local beaches) and stopping your dog having close contact with other dogs, and not letting them drink out of communal water bowls.”
The RSPCA also commented that sickness and diarrhoea is common in dogs during the winter, reported Yorkshire Live.
Further updates will no doubt be issued when DEFRA has concluded its research - in the meantime, worried owners should call the vet if their dog is showing symptoms of gastric illness as it may need rehydration or other treatment. Most, however, go on to make a swift recovery.