New figures have revealed that the parasite lungworm which targets dogs has been found in nearly every county in the UK.
Lungworm was first detected in South Wales and Cornwall in the late 1970s, but has now reached most of the UK, including Northern Ireland and the majority of Scotland.
A rise in warmer, wetter weather is believed to be partly to blame for the growth, as it has led to an increase in slugs and snails, which are the most common hosts of the lungworm parasite.
Vets are now offering advice to dog owners on how to best keep their dogs safe and protected from the parasite.
Dr Huw Stacey, director of clinical service at Vets4Pets, said: “The distribution and risk of lungworm in the UK has increased since it was first detected in the 1970s and has grown even more in the past few years.
“The lungworm parasite uses different animals to complete its lifecycle. Dogs and foxes are usually the primary hosts, whilst slugs and snails act as an intermediate host.”
And it’s at this time of year (autumn) when dogs have a greater chance of encountering slugs and snails on a morning or evening walk, or even in the garden.
The lifecycle of lungworm begins when larvae produced by adult lungworms inside dogs or foxes, are passed through their faeces and then transferred to slugs and snails who feed upon the excrement.
“Dogs love to roam around and explore the outdoors, so can easily come into contact with the infected slugs and snails, and either accidentally or deliberately eat the molluscs or ingest their slime,” said Dr Stacey.
“If this happens, the larvae are absorbed in the dog’s gut and develop into adults which live between the heart and lungs, until they are coughed up and swallowed, then the whole cycle begins again.”
Signs that a dog is infected by the lungworm parasite can include coughing, breathlessness, weight loss, reduced appetite, diarrhoea and in more severe cases, fits, impaired blood clotting and haemorrhage.
Dr Stacey added: “These signs are not a sure guarantee of lungworm, so if your dog is displaying any of these symptoms, it is essential to take them into your local vet so further tests can be done to reach a diagnosis.”
Recent studies have shown that lungworm is spreading steadily across the UK, with south west Wales and south west London being the worst affected areas.
“Lungworm can normally be treated successfully if diagnosed in time, but we always believe that prevention is better than cure,” said Dr Stacey.
“Luckily there are a number of simple treatments, including a spot-on-product or tablets, which are easy to administer and very effective at protecting dogs against lungworm.
“For extra safety, owners should be vigilant of their dogs when the weather is mild and wet, as, in these conditions, slugs and snails are more active.
“Owners can also make sure to bring any dog toys indoors at night and avoid letting their dog play with any sticks, as these can both easily be covered in infected slug and snail slime.
“These simple steps and keeping up with regular lungworm treatments, will help keep your dog protected from this serious disease.”