There is a very contagious strain of gastroenteritis affecting dogs in my local area at the moment, upsetting their stomachs and making them very poorly. A local vet suggested it was related to standing water and advised owners to avoid places where there’s a lot of it about. He had managed to isolate various bacteria associated with the illness, including campylobacter, giardia and coronavirus.
We’ve been hearing a lot about the coronavirus recently, but thankfully, the doggy version cannot be transferred to humans. However, campylobacter can, causing symptoms of diarrhoea and stomach cramps, and can be serious if passed on to very young children, the elderly, or those with a weakened immune system. The advice is to be to be extra vigilant with your hand washing if you have touched dogs with the illness.
Possibly one of most well-known zoonotic diseases – that is one that can be passed from dogs to humans – is rabies. Growing up in the 60s, 70s and 80s, I was always very aware of it, and very fearful of the possibility of catching it. Tales of certain, agonising death from attacks by ferocious dogs foaming at the mouth gave me nightmares.
But the truth was that England had been rabies-free since 1922, with the last known death caused by an infected animal indigenous to this country being in 1902. Thanks to a strict programme of quarantine, whereby animals brought here from abroad were kept in isolation for six months to be certain they were disease-free, meant the hideous virus was eliminated.
However that didn’t mean the threat had disappeared permanently, as my dad explains in his column from 23rd February 1980. There had been a resurgence in certain parts of Europe, sparking fears that it may once again reach our shores.
‘Rabies continues to spread across Europe at the rate of some 25-30 miles a year and a forecast published four years ago estimated it would reach the Channel ports of France this year,’ he wrote. Indeed, it must have been a very worrying time, and Dad feared that some daft person might be tempted to smuggle a cute puppy into the country to avoid quarantine, oblivious to the dangers.
You can understand why we were so fearful, as rabies is particularly nasty, and still active in 150 countries mostly on the African and Asian continents. It has a long incubation period of between three and 12 weeks, so even though you may have been bitten while on holiday a couple of months back, the symptoms might not show up until you’ve been home for some time. In fact, there have been a handful of deaths in the UK since 2000, but all involving dog bites while abroad. Certain species of bat can also carry rabies, and there was one incident of a man dying in Scotland in 2002 after being bitten by one of the diseased creatures.
The awful thing is, once symptoms start to show, then your fate is sealed, as it is almost always fatal. These include anxiety, headaches and fever as the brain and central nervous system begin to shut down, leading to coma and eventual death.
Rabies is passed through saliva, and if you’re travelling to a country where it is still active, then do not be tempted to pet dogs. If you are bitten or even licked by a dog, then the advice is to thoroughly wash your hands and seek a vaccination against the virus immediately. If you catch it before any symptoms show, then your chances of recovery are very good.
We have been fearful of ‘mad dogs’ for many centuries, and in the Middle Ages, there were a number of strange ‘cures’ to help those who’d been attacked. One recommendation was to feed hen’s dung to crazed dogs to cure them, while an account from 1628 says: ‘To cure the bite of a madde dogge, take vinegar of as much as two tablespoonfuls and mix there into so much salt as one tablespoonful.’
I think I might just stick to the World Health Organisation’s guidelines, and when on holiday in any far flung place, will resist the temptation to pet any dogs. And if your dog has succumbed to the recent gastroenteritis outbreak, then don’t let them lick you, and always wash your hands thoroughly after touching your dog.
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