Researchers at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) are calling for dog owners and veterinarians to recognise the signs of a potentially fatal bacterial pneumonia-type disease in dogs.

The college said it was also seeking the help of UK vets who are treating affected dogs to submit swab samples to aid research.

According to scientists, Streptococcus zooepidemicus is a bacterial infection that has been increasing in the canine community over the past five years. It manifests similarly to human toxic shock syndrome, they said, causing a severe, bloody pneumonia. It has an acute onset, and in a small proportion of cases, the disease has been known to kill dogs within 24 hours.

Outbreaks are sporadic, said the researchers, but particularly occur in situations where dogs mix in groups, such as rehoming or boarding kennels, or in hunting and racing greyhound communities. It is rarer in family pets, but academics are still keen to highlight the signs to owners, particularly if they regularly visit kennels or attend events where large groups of animals gather.

According to the college, signs the disease in its early stages are similar to those of kennel cough. However, in Streptococcus zooepidemicus outbreaks, dogs rapidly become very ill and show very severe signs, with a mortality rate of up to 50% reported. In contrast to this, in more typical cases of kennel cough, most dogs will have a relatively mild illness and deaths are rare.

The RVC’s Simon Priestnall said the increase of the incidence of the disease “suggests the bacterium may have mutated to become more virulent and contagious“.

“Although Streptococcus zooepidemicus was first identified in dogs in the 1970s, veterinarians and researchers have seen the number of cases spiral upwards over the past five years.

“Signs for owners to look out for in their pets include a fever, which is usually accompanied by sneezing and nasal discharge that is often bloody, and their animal becoming lethargic. If owners notice the rapid onset of these signs, they are advised to seek veterinary help immediately. With prompt identification, medical treatment and supportive care, dogs can make a full recovery.”

Dr Priestnall and his colleagues are working alongside the Animal Health Trust and the University of Nottingham’s vet school to investigate the pathogen and develop a test for it.

If vets want more information or would like to submit samples to help with research into the disease, they can email Dr Priestnall.

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