The guide dog headquarters has been shaken after two young dogs were quarantined after testing positive for an incurable disease which can be passed to humans, The Telegraph can reveal.
The young male animals were screened for the bacteria Brucella canis earlier this year and were found to be positive. The animals have been separated from other dogs and are being handled only by veterinarians in hazmat suits, despite concerns that the tests were false positives.
They are believed to be the first guide dogs to test positive for the disease. There is no cure for dogs and it can also infect humans. Humans can be treated with strong antibiotics, but many veterinarians refuse to see infected animals because of the risk of contracting the disease.
The government advises owners that the only way to ensure no transmission to other dogs or people is to euthanize infected dogs.
B. canis is spread through contact with bodily fluids. However, saliva and urine contain low levels of the bacteria, and the main risk comes from exposure to reproductive fluids, during birthing or spaying.
Influx of imported dogs
An increase in cases of Brucella canis in recent years is the result of the importation of pet dogs with the disease flooding the UK market. Most infected imported dogs come from Romania, according to official data.
Experts fear that the influx of infected imported dogs could allow the canine disease to spread undetected.
Guide Dogs implemented its first Brucella testing program in the spring to “build a ring of steel around our dogs” and ensure that all those used for breeding were clean.
Albus and Spencer, an 18-month-old black Labrador and an almost three-year-old golden retriever, respectively, were two of 80 potential stallions to be tested and the only ones to get a positive result.
Both animals were at the charity’s Leamington Spa headquarters when they tested positive. This is where the first training of guide dogs takes place, as well as much of the veterinary care, research and breeding.
“Once that was diagnosed, they went into isolation,” Dr Tim Davies, lead veterinarian at Guide Dogs, told the Telegraph.
“We have now moved them to a specific facility that we have in Reading, which gives them more space – they have better grass tracks that they can use, for example.
“Part of the reason is that it’s better in terms of space; the second part is that, in the very unlikely event that they have the disease, the last place on earth we would want these dogs is around our breeding stock.
“They were cared for at Leamington Spa in a biosecure way, shall we say, so that people are equipped when looking after them.
“At Reading, staff will wear overtrousers, wellies and anorak-style clothing. At the National Center (in Leamington Spa) they used hazmat suits.
De facto lock
The dogs have so far spent four months in de facto confinement and cut off from other animals. Access to the site was limited and the dogs separated when the first positive results arrived.
Experienced vets will sterilize dogs at the specialist facility in Reading to prevent them from passing on any infections they may have. Brucella canis causes infertility in dogs and manifests as underweight puppies, stillbirths and a high puppy mortality rate. There is no sign the guide dog herd is infected, Dr Davies said.
“Neutering actually poses a high risk to our veterinarians because that’s where Brucella is most concentrated. But our veterinarians understand the situation and are happy to do it. I told them if you don’t want to do it, I’ll do it myself,” Dr Davies said.
Brucella canis tests are not perfect, he said, because they have a specificity of about 98 percent, meaning that if 100 perfectly healthy animals are tested, two dogs will be falsely reported as positive . He thinks that’s probably the case for Albus and Spencer.
The dogs fall into the “negligible risk” category, he explained, because they had no symptoms, no exposure to imported dogs and only a weak positive laboratory result.
Dr Davies believes the positive result is likely because the test identifies proteins in the blood that resemble B. canis antibodies and therefore produce a false positive result.
The long-term fate of the dogs remains up in the air. Dr Davies believes they are not infected, but the test result came back positive, although it is not entirely reliable.
Guide dogs are reportedly working on a radical plan to get Albus and Spencer adopted by distant foster families and out of the quarantine and purgatory state caused by unreliable testing and “vague” government guidelines, according to Dr. Davies.
The guidelines are expected to be updated next week and advocates are calling for clearer recommendations on what steps to take if a dog tests positive, with current guidelines accused of being too vague.
Brucella canis infection in humans is rare, treatable, and not fatal. Clinical symptoms vary widely but include fever, chills, malaise, swollen spleen, and enlarged lymph nodes.
Children, immunocompromised people such as HIV patients and pregnant women may be at greater risk.
Albus and Spencer’s long-term fate remains uncertain, but Guide Dogs hatches a plan to get them out of purgatory and back to some semblance of normality – codenamed “Scottish Island Foster Care Scenario.”
Albus is an 18-month-old black Labrador and is described as “the happiest dog with a beautiful temperament” by his caregivers.