In 1991 Government vets studied the brains of 444 hunting hounds, some of which had been under-performing. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food confirmed that some of the brains showed signs of the canine equivalent of mad cow disease.
Last week, Norwegian scientists said they thought an 11-year-old golden retriever had died from a spongiform encephalopathy. They are linking the death to pet food made from cattle remains imported from the UK.
Until now, no-one has been able to explain why dogs aren't infected with a spongiform encephalopathy and cats are. At least 75 cats have already died from feline spongiform encephalopathy (FSE), which they probably caught from eating food contaminated with the agent causing BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in cows.
The hounds may have caught the disease in the same way.
Doctor Stephen Dealler, a consultant microbiologist and persistent critic of the Ministry's policy on BSE, said it was another example of a cover- up. "It's incredible that this experiment was known about before the last General Election," he added.
When The Independent contacted Ian McGill - one of the vets who worked on the hounds - he refused to answer our questions. "Why don't you try contacting the Ministry Press Office?" was his response.
A Ministry spokeswoman confirmed that scientists at the Central Veterinary Laboratory and the Veterinary Investigation Service did the work. They found scrapie associated fibrils (SAFs) in some of the brains.
Fibrils are little fibres which were first noticed by scientists studying scrapie, a spongiform encephalopathy in sheep.
"You can be absolutely certain that the presence of SAFs shows these dogs had the disease," said Dr Dealler.
In 1992 the results were reported verbally to the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) which advises the Government on BSE policy. The then chairman, Dr. David Tyrrell, apparently decided that as the results were unreliable and as there was no danger to public health, the work should not be taken any further.
David Wadsworth, a vet and president of the British Small Animal Veterinary Association, said he had never seen a dog encephalopathy in his practice. "It's certainly news to me, and it's the first I've heard of the Ministry work."
Any dog with the disease will probably have picked it up before September 1990 when the specified bovine offals thought to carry the BSE agent in cattle were banned in pet food.
Because CJD and BSE have comparatively long incubation times - seven years or more - dogs that were puppies in the late 1980s may now be reaching the age when they start to show effects.
It is possible, also, that the disease in dogs is naturally occurring and not linked to infected meat.
The Independent spoke to Mrs Anne Jones, from Hednesford in Staffordshire, who sent a video of her dog to Dr Dealler because she thought it had the disease.
"My dog seems to have recovered, but I'm sure that if you put an advertisement in one of the dog magazines, people would fill the pages with their experiences," she said.
Another incident was reported to David Hinchliffe, Labour MP for Wakefield. "About a year ago, I was contacted by a lady who was convinced several of her dogs had the canine version of BSE," he said. "I put her in contact with some scientists, but I think she may have emigrated since then."Reuse content