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Test before you treat...

Lungworm is described as an 'emerging' disease which means it's gradually becoming more common around the UK due to global warming, the decrease in use of slug pellets and the increase of the urban fox population. It can be serious, potentially even fatal if left untreated. Melle Butler, agility competitor and founder of LAB K9 and LAB Equine, is passionate about screening for this killer disease, and is determined that it won't get another one of her dogs!

I became aware of lungworm about five years ago when my Sheltie 'Aimeedog' began showing symptoms of a lungworm infection. Aimeedog was 13 years old and started to cough a lot. I took her to the vets who tested her and discovered it was, in fact, an advanced lungworm infection. She limped on for another year, but sadly it was too late in the day to be treated and the symptoms just got worse so I made the heartbreaking decision to put her to sleep.

At the time, I ruled out a worm burden because I'd been a responsible 'pup mumma' by giving her a Drontal periodically, or so I thought! Please note. Drontal is not a lungworm treatment. You have to get a prescribed drug such as Advocate from the vet to treat it.

After that heartbreak, I was determined that none of my dogs would ever suffer from this potentially fatal parasite, and so I thoroughly educated myself on lungworm.

About lungworm
Lungworm is a type of parasitic worm called angiostrongylus vasorum which can affect dogs, foxes and badgers. It lives in the heart and blood vessels that supply the lungs and can be serious, potentially even fatal, if left untreated.

Historically lungworm only appeared in certain 'hot spots' in the South East of England but, in recent years, it has been identified in dogs in most areas of the UK. Research by the Royal Veterinary College has found that one in five vet practices in the UK have reported at least one clinical case of lungworm in a dog. Altogether there have been 2871 cases that have been reported in the UK.

It's unclear exactly what's causing lungworm to spread as well as other parasites such as ticks, but increased movement of dogs around the country, as well as increasing contact between wildlife and the urban environment, is thought to have played a part.

Dogs get lungworm by drinking water and eating larvae found in infected prey such as snails, slugs or frogs. They can be also accidentally eat infected tiny slugs if they are on a toy or even a stick.

Lungworm larvae can also be released into the slime trail, meaning areas a slug has crawled over could pose a potential risk. Once swallowed, the larvae travel to the dog's heart where they develop into adult lungworms. Frogs can also carry the larvae, posing an additional risk to dogs.

The lungworm larvae then grow inside the dog and adult lungworms move through their body to live in their heart and blood vessels.

Dogs do not have to eat the actual snail or slug to get infected. Slugs and snails can carry lungworm larvae, and dogs become infected when they eat these infected mollusks which can happen when dogs rummage through undergrowth, eat grass or drink from puddles or outdoor water bowls etc. Then infected dogs can pass eggs in feaces.

Signs that your dog might be infected
Lungworm is often a chronic disease which can last in the environment for months, even years.

Signs of lungworm disease are vague and easily confused with other illnesses, including:-

  • Weight loss

  • Breathing difficulties

  • Coughing (especially bringing up blood)

  • Lethargy

  • Poor blood clotting/persistent bleeding

  • General sickness

  • Circling

  • Stomach and back pain

  • Poor appetite

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Behaviour changes (depression, being tired)

  • Seizures

Why agility dogs can be more at risk...
I believe it's possible that agility dogs are at higher risk of getting lungworm than pet dogs because they are travelling around so much to different show venues around the country where there are large number of dogs and where lungworm can be present without anyone realising it. The dogs are kept in their caravan/campervan gardens where most people feed and play with them, so dog bowls and toys are often left outside overnight and exposed to slugs and snails.

Agility people love to walk their dogs around the show grounds where the risk of contamination can be greatest. Lungworm can be contracted by the dogs as they run through the fields and eating grass thus making dog agility venues potentially more dangerous than other walks.

Treatment
It would appear that some vets are cashing in on lungworm treatment by advising people to medicate on a monthly basis without even knowing for whether the dogs have the disease or not. As many agility people have more than one dog at any one time, the cost of treating them on a monthly basis can be considerable.

From my experience, some vets are almost dismissive of the effect certain lungworm drugs can have on dogs with the MDR-1 gene. It is common knowledge that there are growing anthelmintic (wormer) resistance problems, so by putting these harsh chemicals through your dogs system each month, surely that is contradictive advice?

With the growing worry of anthelmintic (wormer) resistance problem, it makes more sense to do a lungworm faecal test instead of putting chemicals through your dog every month not knowing if they are infected in the first place. This is also a more cost effective programme for people with several dogs especially in the agility world!

LAB K9
For this reason, I wanted to offer my fellow agility folk a cheaper, less invasive alternative by testing for lungworm with a simple postal kit that is really easy to use. This is when LAB K9 was born!

In view of our experience with the pandemic, we have learned that testing and vaccinating has been crucial to controlling the spread of Covid, and this applies to any infectious disease. In order to diagnose the condition, you need to test for it. Positive test result means treat, negative test result means peace of mind. Test more, treat less is the way forward!

LAB K9 promotes 'test more, treat less' methods, using the veterinary gold standard centrifugation techniques for accurate screening, and offering this service at an affordable price to encourage people to test their dogs more and treat them ONLY if it is needed.

For more info and test kits, please take a look at our website

About the author...
Melle Butler has two Many Tears rescue Collies with whom she does agility and scentwork.

She started LAB Equine about five years ago when she took her horse to a livery yard where they'd previously had a redworm burden. The owner was so concerned about contracting it again that she insisted the horses were wormed every six weeks and kept in for days without knowing whether they had the infection in the first place.

Melle has always wanted to keep her horse in a natural environment and decided to find out about doing a worm count test so she could worm less often and not have the horses cooped up every few months in a stable. The response from her fellow horse friends was so welcomed that she decided to start a business offering this service.

She is the founder of LAB Equine which is a member of the British Equine Veterinary Association Parasite Control Programme. She has recently set up LAB K9 to encourage dog people to 'test more and treat less' by offering an affordable solution.

Melle lives in Kent.

 First published 24th September 2021

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