In a UK first, three Brits have been infected with Brucella canis — a disease usually confined to dogs imported from Eastern Europe.
The unidentified cases caught the bacterial infection after contact with infected pets, with at least one requiring hospital treatment for their symptoms.
But officials also revealed that the bug is spreading between UK canines for the first time, raising the prospect of further human infections.
A record 91 cases in dogs were detected in the first six months of this year alone.
Here, MailOnline answers all your questions about the bacterial infection — including how to protect yourself and your pet.
Brucella canis can infect both people and dogs but produces different symptoms
What is Brucella canis?
Brucella canis is a bacterial infection mainly found in dogs.
However, other canines, such as foxes, wolves and coyotes, are also susceptible.
It was first identified in 1960s after breeders in the US reported that their dogs were suffering miscarriages.
Brucella canis is considered an incurable disease in dogs and is also capable of infecting humans in rare cases.
While an infection is not a death sentence for animals, the bacteria can remain dormant in a dog, meaning the animal is at risk of transmitting the infection to others for the rest of its life.
Historically, the vast majority of cases of Brucella canis in the UK have come from imported dogs, mainly from Eastern Europe, where the disease is more common.
However, health chiefs this week warned the disease is now spreading in the UK.
Is Brucella canis notifiable in the UK?
In 2021 Brucella canis was made a reportable animal pathogen throughout the UK.
This means people are legally obliged to report a case to the Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency.
Even suspected cases of Brucella canis must be reported or people risk legal penalties from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
How do dogs get Brucella canis?
Brucella canis is spread primarily through contact with an infected dog’s reproductive fluid.
This means canines can get it through mating with an infected animal or coming into contact with infected semen, vaginal or menstrual secretions.
If an infected dog is pregnant, it can transmit the bacteria to its puppies in the womb, during birth or while they’re drinking its milk.
Brucella canis infection is also possible via exposure to other infected biological material like blood, faeces, saliva, or snot, though this is considered to be less common.
How do people get Brucella canis?
People can get Brucella canis via contact with fluids produced by infected dogs.
This most commonly happens when a dog gives birth, with vets and dog breeders most at risk.
Infection occurs when material infected with Brucella canis comes into contact with people’s mucous membranes, such as their eyes and mouth, or via an open cut on their skin.
People can also get Brucella canis from other biological material produced by infected dogs, such as urine or faeces, though this is far less likely.
However, repeated exposure over a long time does increase the risk.
The bacteria can also spread through droplets in the air during very specific veterinary procedures with an infected animal.
Human-to-human transmission of Brucella canis is technically possible through a transfusion of infected blood or an organ transplant but no such cases have been recorded.
In general, people with compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, are considered to be at greater risk of developing severe disease from a Brucella canis infection.
Officials have broken down where dogs behind the 43 Brucella canis infections were recorded, with animals from Romania being the biggest contributor. This data was measured by officials as 22 individual incidents with could involve multiple animals each
What are the symptoms in dogs?
Symptoms can include general infertility in both male and female dogs and miscarriage in the latter.
Other signs of an infection in both sexes include lethargy, a loss of libido, premature aging and walking difficulties, most commonly due to back pain.
However, many dogs can show no obvious signs of a Brucella canis infection for years while still being infectious.
What are the symptoms in people?
Brucella canis mostly produces general flu-like symptoms in people.
These include fever, a headache, generally feeling unwell, aches and pains and unexplained weight loss.
Symptoms typically develop within three to four weeks of infection.
However, like dogs, some people who are infected can go years without showing any signs.
This, combined with symptoms that could belong to many conditions can lead to problems in diagnosing the disease.
People with Brucella canis can also suffer from recurrent infections over several years.
Is a test available?
Yes. Tests for Brucella Canis in both dogs and people are available, though they are not 100 per cent accurate.
Testing in dogs has skyrocketed in the UK with 5,773 carried out between January and July this year, compared to just 1,332 in 2018.
How is it treated?
For dogs, there is no cure. Euthanasia is the only recognised treatment if the dog is suffering from their infection.
While antibiotics can be used to treat the infection, this dog can still transmit the infection to other animals and people.
Human cases are treated with antibiotics, though this has not always been successful.
Pervious cases in people have also required surgical procedures if the infection becomes severe.
This graph shows the number of Brucella canis tests carried out in the UK each year
How can I reduce the risk of becoming infected?
People adopting an adult dog from a Brucella canis hotspot, such as Romania, should pay for a Brucella canis test to be carried out, experts say.
If adopting a puppy from Eastern Europe, checks should also be carried out when the dog reaches adulthood, as there is an increased risk of a false negative result when the animal is very young.
Brucella canis is technically incurable meaning a dog with the disease will be an infection risk for the rest of their life.
To reduce the risk of becoming infected yourself an owner will need to follow several precautions.
These include using PPE, such as gloves and goggle when dealing with material soiled by a dog’s urine, menstrual blood or birth fluids, and deep cleaning the environment where the dog lives regularly.
Neutering infected dogs and giving them antibiotics is recommended to reduce the risk of it transmitting the infection to other animals and people.
Both owners of infected dogs and the general public are advised to not let dogs lick their face to reduce the chance of catching the infection.
How can I protect my dog from infection?
Preventing dogs from mixing with dogs that have Brucella canis is the best way to lower their risk of infection.
For example, keeping them on a lead in public spaces can help limit such contact.
However, official guidance states that a one-off ‘transient’ contact between animals is unlikely to result in an infection on a single occasion.
But multiple or sustained contact will increase the risk.
If you already have a dog and are looking to adopt from overseas, you are strongly encouraged to pay for a Brucella canis test, especially if the animal is from hotspots such as Romania.
People with dogs infected with Brucella canis should inform holiday kennels of their pet’s infection before having their dog stay there, in case it passes the bacteria on to other pets.
Is a Brucella canis infection dangerous?
The vast majority of Brucella canis infections in people are mild.
No human deaths from Brucella canis have been reported globally.
However, severe illness, while rare, has been recorded.
Serious infections of the heart, bone, brain tissue and blood have been reported in people following Brucella canis infection.
Of the three cases detected in people in the UK, one was found after in an immunocompromised person who needed hospitalisation for treatment.
In the second case, a person working at a vet took a test after contact with an infected dog. Results showed they were positive but they did not develop any symptoms.
Details have not been shared for the third case.
The bacterial infection can jump to people though severe disease is rare. Pictured the Brucella canis bacteria under a microscope
What is being done about the rise in cases?
In addition to the three human cases, there has been a sharp rise in cases detected in dogs in the UK.
Human Animal Infections and Risk Surveillance (HAIRS), a cross-Government group, recently published a report on Brucella canis in the UK.
This report detailed how 43 cases were found in dogs in the UK in the first quarter of 2023, more than double the comparable figure for last year.
A further 48 cases have been identified as of the end of July, taking this year’s total to 91.
In comparison, a total of 143 dogs tested positive between 2020 and 2022.
HAIRS have said that the rise in cases is likely linked to a rise in testing due in part to increased awareness of the disease.
While transmission of Brucella canis among dogs born in the UK has been confirmed, the majority of cases are still being imported into Britian.
Dr Christine Middlemiss, DEFRA’s chief veterinary officer, has said the Government is considering introducing a mandatory testing requirement for dogs imported from Brucella canis hotspots.
‘We are gathering the evidence, various risk assessments are contributing to that evidence and we will consider it,’ she said.