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Neosporosis Caninum – the unknown killer

DOG OWNERS are being warned about the danger of a little-known but lethal parasite, Neosporosis Caninum, found in uncooked meat that can infect and kill dogs within days of being ingested. More disturbingly, the infected meat was on sale in a well-known high street supermarket and was, to all intents and purposes, perfectly healthy produce.

Anne Hellmuth from Milton Keynes is an experienced dog owner, her whole life involving dogs. She previously kept and exhibited Afghan Hounds and Chinese Cresteds with notable success, but since becoming disabled a few years ago to the extent that she can only walk with the aid of a stick, Anne has kept a couple of dogs as pets – but it was her beloved 16 month old Boxer, ‘Cilla’ – pedigree name Shumllea April Fool – who died as a result of ingesting Neosporosis Caninum.

One Saturday at the beginning of August, Anne and her husband Stephen were planning a barbeque for a small group of local friends. On the Tuesday of the week of the planned barbeque, the couple bought some large packs of fresh lean minced steak from their local supermarket from which they intended to make their own burgers.

Anne takes up the story: "As they were large packs, there was plenty of meat available, so I suggested making spaghetti bolognaise for tea as it is a quick and easy meal to make," says Anne. "I took about one third of the mince from one of these packets and put it in a pan. All of the rest of the meat was then frozen for the weekend. My Boxer Cilla came into the kitchen and, as I had not starting cooking at that moment, I removed some of the mince and gave her a small piece to eat - about half the size of a gold ball and she loved it."

Three days later, on the Friday of that week, Cilla was starting to act strangely. "She was hanging her head to one side, and slightly falling as if she was drunk," says Anne. "On the Saturday she seemed to stabilise and I thought she was a little better, so thinking she had an inner ear infection started her on a course of synulox 250 mg tablets three times daily, as the vet would usually prescribe."

The following Monday, Cilla’s condition drastically worsened, and she was finding it increasingly difficult to stand, so Anne and Stephen rushed her to their vets in Newport Pagnell. The vet, Paul manning, said that they would keep Cilla in and conduct a series of blood tests, as he had an inkling that the dog may have contracted some form of parasitic infection, which Anne had not heard of before – Neosporosis Caninum. Antibiotic treatment would be started, and the synulox that Anne had already given Cilla was a good start.

Anne continues: "She was a little better on the Tuesday evening so she was allowed home. But she was still hanging her head to one side, and walking in circles and then falling over. I thought she had gone blind at that point, but my vet said that she wasn’t, although her reactions were a lot slower than what they should be. We continued with the drugs that had been prescribed then Wednesday came and my vet rang to say the tests results were back and were positive. She was infected with Neosporosis Caninum. We then racked our brains how she could get this awful disease!

"Apparently very few cases are reported in dogs, because the infection is masked by so many symptoms. I only had a couple of days to read up on this illness and my worst fears had now become a reality."

Anne read up on the disease via the Internet and was shocked at the information she uncovered.

Neospora is a parasite that is ingested from contaminated meat, that is fresh from infected beef herds, and from consumption it only takes 1-3 days for the parasite to attack the animal’s brain, then work its way down the spinal cord, and infect all the major organs and muscles, leaving the dog paralysed and blind.

Studies carried out at several universities show that from the first signs of symptoms, death or euthanasia to prevent further suffering is usually within seven days. Other tests have shown that swift medication can leave the parasite dormant indefinitely, but if paralysis has already set in, then there will be no improvement to the dog’s muscular reactions, due to irreversible brain damage.

By now Cilla’s condition had worsened, to the extent that she was almost comatose, showing little or not reaction to outside stimuli, so Anne made the heartbreaking decision to have Cilla euthansed to prevent her from suffering further.

"I was – still am – devastated," Anne told OUR DOGS. "It all happened so quickly and I’d never heard of this parasite before. On researching into it, on the Internet, it mostly appears in cattle herds. Clinical tests have been carried out at Liverpool University, as well as in Sweden, and the USA. It is usually more common in Costa Rica, South America, but is gradually showing up everywhere. There was also some concern with the findings of some clinical tests showing a high incidence of women aborting their babies mid-term after coming into contact with this problem, although human beings are supposed not to be affected by Neosporosis, but I have not found any further test results on this."

Very few cases of Neosporosis were reported in the UK in the last year. Indeed, the Chief Vet at DEFRA told Anne that there were NO cases reported in dogs, only cattle and that the symptoms range from a weakness and paralysis of the forelimbs, drunken type behaviour, altered behaviour, blindness, head tilt, head nodding, tremors, seizures and sudden death due to heart inflammation, pneumonia and skin abnormalities. The parasite can only be ingested from fresh infected meat, as freezing and cooking the meat will kill the spores.

"As we eat very little meat ourselves, and never feed fresh uncooked meat to our adult dogs, I can definitely say that it was the small piece of fresh lean mince steak that I fed Cilla that was the cause," says Anne. "I feel truly awful about this, but the lean minced steak purchased was from the human food chain, and not for animal consumption, so what are we eating?!

"I’m told that Neospora cannot use humans as a host because, if ingested the stomach acid is strong enough to kill the spores. That is why its presence in the human food chain has never been alerted to the public, it only affects, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, but has now moved to dogs, and research on the Internet suggests ALL dog breeders and owners be aware of this parasite.

"From the onset of ingesting the spores, my dog was dead within eight and a half days. She was my constant house companion, and our hearts have been ripped apart. How many of you, when in the kitchen, preparing the evening meal, give some fresh meat to your dog? I have always cut bits off, especially the fat, and that’s the highlight of their day, waiting for that bit. Could we be condemning them to death by giving them a treat?"

Under UK regulations, only one animal is inspected from each beef herd to be slaughtered to test for any parasitic infection – and this includes diseases fatal to human beings, such as BSE and CJD. But large quantities of meat are now imported from other countries, ironically in the wake of the BSE scare. And this meat may not be tested for such infection in the country of origin.

Anne has since contacted DEFRA who were immediately concerned, and their duty veterinary surgeon suggested that she contact the Food Standards Agency in London. They in turn were at a loss of what to do, as this is ‘not a common problem’ – or so they think. Anne next alerted her local Environmental Health Officer and we spent several telephone calls exchanging information.

"He was also at a loss of what to do, and had to keep going off and making other calls, and looking up journals," says Anne. " In the end, the London office decided that as the mince was for human consumption, and I fed it to a dog, they had no jurisdiction in the matter. But they advised me to alert as many dog breeders as possible, and to go to the canine press, and to try to make vets more aware of this parasite, as many simply never consider this to be a possibility. The problem is that the disease is masked by so many symptoms, that some vets may treat a dog for a particular condition, but not the true cause. Therefore, if the dog is not titre tested for Neosporosis, then no one will know it is present, which then runs the risk of possibly infecting close kennel companions, or even the pet dog next door through the garden fence, or the pet next to them in the vets itself.

Anne concludes with a stark warning for all dog owners: "I have been involved with dogs for most of my life, and have NEVER come across this problem or even heard of this, but am now being told that a dog can also be infected from drinking stagnant drinking water. But the main host is equine and bovine, so what is transmitting it to the water, could it be flies? Or can it be airborne? So little is known about this parasite.

"From now on, all of my dogs will be tested regularly, as it is said to be easily detected and is treatable if caught early on with specific antibiotics containing sulphur. Having had first hand knowledge of this awful parasite and what it can do to bring down a large healthy boxer bitch in a week, is frightening, and seeing her, the symptoms were as if it were CJD - as some people have already pointed out to me, I never want to go through this again, with any of my dogs. I do not want Cilla’s death to be in vain, but there may just be a chance here of helping some dogs to avoid this awful death if we are all prepared.