AN INCREASING number of British dogs and cats are catching deadly diseases on foreign holidays as more animals travel with their owners on the Pet Passports scheme introduced four years ago.
The School of Tropical Medicine in Liverpool said that reported cases of some animal diseases picked up on holiday had doubled since 2002.
Last year 37 pet dogs - almost half of the 84 tested at the school - were found to have leishmaniasis, an incurable disease passed on by sandflies in Mediterranean countries.
The figure is more than double the 17 dogs that caught the disease on holidays in 2002. Symptoms include weight loss, eye disease and kidney failure.
Other diseases that have shown increases of about 100 per cent include babesiosis and ehrlichiosis - blood diseases spread by ticks - and heartworm, a parasite passed on by mosquitoes.
Vets estimate that about 300 dogs nationally were known to have caught diseases abroad last year. They fear that many more cases go undiagnosed or unreported.
As millions of Britons prepare to fly abroad for their summer holidays, Dr Jackie Barber - a veterinary parasitologist - warned pet owners that they should be aware of the risks.
"It is heartbreaking for owners when their pets catch these diseases and, in many cases, die. People must realise that it is a very real threat."
Babesiosis, which has claimed the lives of at least two dogs since the Easter holidays, can kill pets within days, while other diseases have incubation periods of months or years.
Dr Susan Shaw, a senior lecturer in veterinary science at Bristol university, said: "Animals have no immunity to the infections and there are no vaccinations. It is crucial that pet owners use preventative measures, such as repellents to stop the insects biting and spreading the disease."
The situation is made worse by the fact that many British vets are unfamiliar with the diseases. Most vets refer the pets to tropical medicine schools, sending blood samples for analysis.
Doctors fear that the diseases could be passed on to other animals back in Britain - and possibly to humans, although there is no evidence that any of these diseases has ever proved to be zoonotic and crossed the species barrier.
Most of the exotic diseases are picked up on beaches and in woods and gardens in Mediterranean countries including France, Spain, Italy and Greece.
Dr Barber said: "We don't associate Europe with tropical diseases in humans, but for animals it is as if they were travelling to somewhere like Africa."
The School of Tropical Medicine, which mainly treats human diseases but works closely with Liverpool University's veterinary department, has set up a diagnostic scheme, Testapet, to help vets to detect the exotic diseases.
Sandy Trees, a professor of veterinary parasitology at Liverpool University, said that owners should ask themselves whether they really needed to take their pets abroad.
A spokesman for the British Small Animals Veterinary Association said: "It is vital that pets are checked as soon as they come back to Britain if they show any signs of sickness."
British dogs are particularly susceptible to babesiosis because, having never encountered the disease, they have no resistance to it and can die within days of the symptoms appearing.
DEFRA launched a scheme in 2003 to monitor the occurrence of exotic diseases in dogs and cats in the UK and also to offer advice to pet owners about such diseases and where they occur.
DACTARI – the Dog and Cat Travel And Risk Assessment Information service may be found on the DEFRA PETS website: