Alabama Rot: The horrifying mystery virus killing one dog a week

Jess, 29, from Swindon, Wiltshire, first noticed something was wrong with Pippa when she started to limp one day in December 2015. ‘The vet examined her and found nothing — we thought she’d probably just overdone it on a walk,’ she says

Jess, 29, from Swindon, Wiltshire, first noticed something was wrong with Pippa when she started to limp one day in December 2015. ‘The vet examined her and found nothing — we thought she’d probably just overdone it on a walk,’ she says

Jess, 29, from Swindon, Wiltshire, first noticed something was wrong with Pippa when she started to limp one day in December 2015. ‘The vet examined her and found nothing — we thought she’d probably just overdone it on a walk,’ she says

Carefully parting her dog’s fur to find out why the cocker spaniel kept licking the same spot, Jess Worthington felt a stab of fear.

There, on Pippa’s leg, was a small ulcer-like scratch that had only appeared in the past few hours. And there wasn’t just one — searching further, Jess found five more similar marks on the two-year-old dog.

The veterinary nurse immediately guessed what it was: Alabama Rot — the fatal flesh‑eating virus terrifying dog owners across the country.

The reason it’s so feared is that experts know very little about it, apart from the fact that it attacks a dog’s blood vessels and causes its kidneys to fail.

Scientists don’t know how it’s caught — let alone how to prevent or cure it. There aren’t even official statistics about fatalities, because vets have no way of testing for Alabama Rot when a dog is alive. It can only be confirmed during a post mortem.

What is known is that the disease was first spotted in greyhounds in the U.S. state of Alabama — hence the name — in the Eighties. For decades, Britain’s dogs were safe. But in 2012, Alabama Rot took its first UK victim. Since then, increasing numbers of dogs have been killed. Most cases have been on the south coast of England, but plenty have been confirmed in the North-West.

Jess, 29, from Swindon, Wiltshire, first noticed something was wrong with Pippa when she started to limp one day in December 2015. ‘The vet examined her and found nothing — we thought she’d probably just overdone it on a walk,’ she says.

‘But at home the next morning I noticed she was licking her leg, so I had a look and that’s when I found a nasty-looking lesion.

Alarm bells immediately rang because I knew it was a sign of Alabama Rot.

‘I felt absolute dread — my heart was beating so fast — and I was panicking as I quickly got into the car with her to go back to work.’ Pippa was put on fluids to support her kidneys, given blood and urine tests and monitored overnight.

Jess’s other cocker spaniel, Molly, started licking her paw. She, too, had lesions — and the virus. Both dogs were taken to Anderson Moores vets in Winchester, which specialises in the treatment of Alabama Rot. Devastated, Jess and husband Ian spent as much time as they could with the dogs. On the third day, Pippa’s kidneys began to deteriorate

Jess’s other cocker spaniel, Molly, started licking her paw. She, too, had lesions — and the virus. Both dogs were taken to Anderson Moores vets in Winchester, which specialises in the treatment of Alabama Rot. Devastated, Jess and husband Ian spent as much time as they could with the dogs. On the third day, Pippa’s kidneys began to deteriorate

Jess’s other cocker spaniel, Molly, started licking her paw. She, too, had lesions — and the virus. Both dogs were taken to Anderson Moores vets in Winchester, which specialises in the treatment of Alabama Rot. Devastated, Jess and husband Ian spent as much time as they could with the dogs. On the third day, Pippa’s kidneys began to deteriorate

But the next day there was more bad news. Jess’s other cocker spaniel, Molly, started licking her paw. She, too, had lesions — and the virus.

Both dogs were taken to Anderson Moores vets in Winchester, which specialises in the treatment of Alabama Rot. Devastated, Jess and husband Ian spent as much time as they could with the dogs. On the third day, Pippa’s kidneys began to deteriorate.

‘The vet said we needed to quickly take her to the Royal Veterinary College in London. That night, my dad drove us there — I was too upset. The team was amazing but the prognosis wasn’t good — they said 95 per cent of dogs don’t make it.’ Over the next few days, Pippa had an operation to replace her damaged plasma, a yellow liquid in the blood that carries nutrients to damaged cells.

Jess and Ian were told it was the only treatment that could help Pippa. But it didn’t, and her condition worsened.

‘A week after she’d first fallen ill, her skin was yellow, she couldn’t lift her head. There was a nasty lesion on her back leg and she was in such a bad way we had to make the call to put her to sleep.’

Even worse, Jess and Ian knew Molly still wasn’t out of the woods.

‘We went home to an empty house,’ she remembers. ‘I took all the Christmas decorations down — the dogs had their own stockings — as I couldn’t face it.’

But six days later, Molly got the all clear. She was lucky. For the number of dogs being killed by Alabama Rot is on the rise. In 2012, just six succumbed to the disease. By 2015, it was 21 and last year one died every week.

And we still don’t know if the disease is contagious.

Farmer Gabrielle Williams, of Magor, Monmouthshire, had five dogs who were walked together, yet just one — her beloved whippet Fleur — developed the Rot.

Farmer Gabrielle Williams, of Magor, Monmouthshire, had five dogs who were walked together, yet just one — her beloved whippet Fleur — developed the Rot. It began one day in March 2017 when the five-year-old dog lost her appetite. The next day, Gabrielle found a small sore on her foot but presumed it was an injury. But three days later it was no better. ‘I took her to the local vet who put her on antibiotics and painkillers,’ says Gabrielle, who has a son Harrison, three, with partner Paul

Farmer Gabrielle Williams, of Magor, Monmouthshire, had five dogs who were walked together, yet just one — her beloved whippet Fleur — developed the Rot. It began one day in March 2017 when the five-year-old dog lost her appetite. The next day, Gabrielle found a small sore on her foot but presumed it was an injury. But three days later it was no better. ‘I took her to the local vet who put her on antibiotics and painkillers,’ says Gabrielle, who has a son Harrison, three, with partner Paul

Farmer Gabrielle Williams, of Magor, Monmouthshire, had five dogs who were walked together, yet just one — her beloved whippet Fleur — developed the Rot. It began one day in March 2017 when the five-year-old dog lost her appetite. The next day, Gabrielle found a small sore on her foot but presumed it was an injury. But three days later it was no better. ‘I took her to the local vet who put her on antibiotics and painkillers,’ says Gabrielle, who has a son Harrison, three, with partner Paul

It began one day in March 2017 when the five-year-old dog lost her appetite. The next day, Gabrielle found a small sore on her foot but presumed it was an injury. But three days later it was no better. ‘I took her to the local vet who put her on antibiotics and painkillers,’ says Gabrielle, who has a son Harrison, three, with partner Paul.

‘But the next morning, I noticed sores in her mouth so took her back to the vet to have some blood tests.’

The next day the vet rang.

‘They told me they suspected Alabama Rot. I just went cold. It had come up when I was looking up Fleur’s symptoms online and I knew the outcome often wasn’t good.’

The once playful dog was transferred to Anderson Moores but the next day Fleur’s condition drastically deteriorated. Gabrielle had to take the decision to put her to sleep.

‘It was absolutely devastating. And I was very worried that my other four dogs would go down with it. I was so vigilant — for months afterwards if they even got a little nick, I’d panic.

‘I’ve no idea why they didn’t all get it. They all eat the same food, walk the same routes.’

Experts are determined to uncover the truth about how Alabama Rot is caught.

Research suggests vulnerable dogs have a genetic predisposition to the illness, which is triggered by unknown environmental factors. But the evidence is far from conclusive and we still don’t know how to prevent it.

We do know most cases are diagnosed in winter. ‘A distinct seasonal pattern is suggested, with the vast majority of cases occurring between November and March, and a limited number of cases over the summer months,’ says vet David Walker, one of the UK’s experts. ‘Just 6.5 per cent of cases have been confirmed from June to October.’

Owners are advised to wash mud off their pets, just in case it can be transferred that way. And anyone who suspects Alabama Rot should seek vet treatment urgently.

Quick action helped save Michael Barlow’s beautiful Labrador Lulu.

The contractor was in Dubai when the woman looking after Lulu near his home in Lymington, Hampshire, called to say the six-year-old was ill.

Michael, 52, told her to take Lulu to the vet and flew home the next day.

‘I’d known her since birth — she was a puppy from my sister’s dog — and I’d hand-reared her. It was an awful flight back,’ he recalls.

‘I went as fast as I could to the Royal Veterinary College but when we got there she couldn’t walk and was very, very weak.’

After two plasma exchanges, it was touch-and-go.

‘But after a week or two, I bounced a ball in front of her and she looked up. That was the first time I thought she might be getting better.’

After almost three weeks, and a £15,000 bill, Lulu was ready to go home. Nearly four years on, she’s still well.

But Michael’s experience is another alarming example of why Alabama Rot is described as Britain’s most frightening canine disease.

 

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