DOG owners in Oxfordshire are being advised to take the precaution of washing their pets if they walk through mud, following a rise in cases of the killer disease Alabama Rot.

The number of cases reported nationwide is small but growing, with at least one in Oxford so far, and leading vets are urging owners to keep their pets safe if possible.

Cases of the illness, which kills 80 per cent of affected animals, have increased year-on-year since it arrived in the UK in 2012.

So far, there is no known cause or cure for the disease, and the most worrying aspect for owners is that it is leading to the deaths of the majority of dogs affected.

Owners have been advised to wash their pets if they walk through mud, as it is suspected the disease is picked up in muddy areas.

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In February vets Anderson Moores, based in Winchester, the leading firm tackling the problem, reported a case in Oxford, with a total of 152 cases across the country since 2012.

Details of the Oxford case have not yet been revealed and it is not yet known if the dog survived.

There were just six cases in 2012, growing to 19 in 2016 and 40 in 2017, and this year looks likely to set a new record, with 30 cases confirmed already.

The disease is often not spotted until it is too late and the dog is already dying, as it presents itself initially as harmless cuts and sores on the leg.

David Walker, of Anderson Moores Veterinary Specialists, said: “With 30 cases in 2018 already it is understandably very worrying for dog owners, but we hope the increase in cases is partially due to a higher awareness and understanding of the disease.

“However, this disease is still very rare, so we’re advising dog owners to remain calm but vigilant, and seek advice from their local vet if their dog develops unexplained skin lesions.

“The first sign of the disease that is normally seen is a skin sore that isn’t caused by a known injury.

“Most commonly these sores are found on the lower half of the leg and appear as a distinct swelling, a patch of red skin, or are open and ulcer-like.

“While there is currently no known way to prevent a dog from contracting the disease, any concerned dog owners should visit vets4pets.com/stop-alabama-rot for advice and a map of confirmed cases.

“Unfortunately Alabama Rot can not currently be diagnosed on the basis of blood tests.

“At the moment we can only provide 100 per cent confirmation of the disease following analysis of kidney tissue.”

The Dogs Trust said: “Where possible, stick to dry paths and keep your dog out of muddy or wet areas.

“If your dog starts to become ill or suffers from lethargy, anorexia or vomiting, immediately contact your vet.”

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Caroline Allen, the RSPCA’s veterinary director, said the cause of Alabama Rot – also known as Cutaneous and Renal Glomerular Vasculopathy (CRGV) – was unknown and little is known about the mysterious condition.

She said: “This makes it very difficult to say why there have been a number of cases in recent months, although cases seem to be more common in winter and spring.

“It is also very difficult to give advice about how to avoid it. It is sensible to wash off mud after a muddy walk, especially in woodland.

“Dogs can display skin lesions that often look like open sores or ulcers – particularly on the legs – and signs of acute kidney injury can develop including drinking more, vomiting and lethargy.”

Vets4Pets is providing details on what dog owners should look out for.

Its website said: “The first sign that is normally seen is a skin sore not caused by any known injury.

“Most commonly, these sores are found below the elbow or knee and appear as a distinct swelling, a patch of red skin, or are open and ulcer-like.

“Within approximately two to seven days, the affected dogs develop outward signs of sudden kidney failure which can include vomiting, reduced hunger, and an unusual tiredness.

“Skin sores and sudden kidney failure are not unique to this disease alone, and are actually more likely to be caused by some other disease.

“Your vet will run a number of tests to determine the underlying cause.”

An Alabama Rot Research Fund charity, which aims to raise £240,000, has now been established.

Following the first Alabama Rot conference in May 2017, the first stage of research was planned, with funding from the New Forest Dog Owners Group and the charity Alabama Rot Research Fund.

Dr Kim Stevens, of the Royal Veterinary College, who is carrying out the research, is hoping to have the results of her work published in March.

She said: “This research will not identify the specific cause of the disease, but is designed to look for geographical patterns, as well as environmental and climatic risk factors.

“An obvious pattern that we can see is linked to seasons, with the vast majority of cases occurring between November and March, and limited cases over the summer.

“We hope our ongoing research with Anderson Moores and the work that Vets4Pets are doing will take us closer to finding the cause of this nasty disease.”

The fund is aiming to improve ‘disease surveillance’ and the recording of cases nationally.

It also aims to employ a full or part-time member of staff with the expertise to co-ordinate the research, and identify possible genetic abnormalities in dogs.

Another possibility is forging links between human and veterinary medicine.

For more information visit the website arrf.co.uk