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PETS - The Passport to more than you bargained for...

Question: I plan to take my Labrador to France this summer. I have heard of dogs contracting serious life-threatening diseases through parasites when abroad. Please could you advise me of the best possible way to prevent this happening.

Answer: Living on the south coast, travel to Europe has never been so accessible. With the success of PETS (The Pets Travel Scheme), more and more pets are travelling abroad with their owners and this has resulted in a rise in the number of vets providing accounts of exotic disease presented in surgeries.

PETS is a system that allows pet animals from certain countries to enter the UK without quarantine, as long as they meet given rules. It also means that people in the UK can take their pets to other EU countries (and some non-EU countries) and return with them to the UK.

The rules include microchipping, rabies vaccinations and boosters, blood tests to determine the success of injections, health certificates and, 24 to 48 hours before returning to the UK, treatment against ticks and the tapeworm.

As the popularity of the scheme grows, the Government is at pains to recommend not only that owners consult their vet before they take their pet abroad but also that, if a pet shows signs of illness after returning from an overseas trip, an owner should explain where they have been so that a vet can consider the possibility of an illness not normally found in the UK.

To consider why this is important I will briefly look at the four main exotic diseases that can have severe consequences for a pet and may pose the risk of spread to humans and be a threat to other animals in the UK.

Leishmaniasis is caused by a single-celled organism known as a protozoan, which is spread between animals by sandflies. The disease is present in Europe, the Middle East and many tropical countries. Several cases are diagnosed in dogs each year in the UK where infection has been picked up abroad and the organism can cause disease in people. Affected animals may lose weight, develop skin lesions and swollen lymph nodes, become lame and have recurring fever.

Babesiosis is a disease of cattle and other mammals, caused by a different protozoan parasite. The organism develops in the red blood cells of affected animals.and is mainly transmitted between animals by ticks but can also be spread by contaminated instruments or needles. Babesiosis occurs worldwide and the cattle disease is constantly present in some areas of the UK. In Europe, particularly in southern France, dogs are at risk of infection and there is a possibility that dogs from the UK, on holiday with their owners in Europe, may return home with the infection. Signs of disease may include a fever, loss of appetite, the passage of red / brown urine, anaemia and weakness.

Heartworm disease is caused through Infection by a parasitic worm. The adult worms live in the heart and blood vessels. Dogs are most commonly affected, but the worms can also infect cats and ferrets. The intermediate stage of the worm, called the larva, is transmitted between animals by mosquitoes in hot countries including Spain and France. Clinical signs vary but may include coughing, breathlessness and intolerance to exercise and can lead to death.

Ehrlichiosis is caused by a parasite that can infect the blood cells of several species including dogs, horses and people. It is transmitted by ticks. The disease occurs in North Africa and in several European countries. Clinical signs vary but include fever, loss of appetite, anaemia, stiffness and reluctance to move. Prolonged bleeding may also be seen.

Certain anti-parasitic products are far more effective than others, and the frequency of administration to provide optimised protection needs to be tailored to the destination to which you are going. I cannot mention specific products in this article, however if you are planning a trip abroad with your pet then please ask your vet for the best control available for ticks, sandflies and mosquitoes.