If you go down to the woods today you’re sure for a big surprise – especially if you have dogs.
Forestry Commission signs went up across the New Forest in Hampshire today warning owners of a mystery disease that has claimed the lives of at least a dozen four-legged friends in the last year and with two new cases confirmed this month it shows no sign of disappearing.
Experts are flummoxed and the Commission has joined forces with local vets, specialist laboratories, the Environment Agency and Animal Health Trust to identify the disease and find a cure. Vets say the illness – that can lead to kidney failure – is similar to "Alabama Rot", first seen in the United States in the 1980s and thought to be related to a toxin produced by E. coli bacteria. Alabama Rot has been associated with greyhounds, but the new strain has affected several breeds.
The source is unknown and owners told the Independent their best guess scenarios for the source were anything from contaminated water to munition dumps.
Wilverley Plain is home to one of the most popular areas for dog walkers in the New Forest and where some of the warning signs have been placed because one of this month’s fatalities regularly walked here. Dog owners are advised to look out for wounds or lesions on the limbs or face which will not heal.
“Affected dogs then go on to develop signs of severe depression, loss of appetite and vomiting, quickly accompanied by acute injury to the kidneys,” the sign adds.
Rohan Glynn has not been put off and was out with his two Dalmatians and a German Pointer this afternoon, despite one of his friends losing his dog to the mystery disease last year.
He said: “My friend ended up taking his dog to Milton Keynes to a see a specialist vet surgeon it was so ill, but there was nothing that could be done. They tested it for everything but just couldn’t work out what had caused it.
“There are all sorts of theories doing the rounds: that the disease is water-borne, or it’s a fungal infection or even that the dogs are catching something from old World War Two munitions that have seeped into the ground. Nobody really knows.”
Mr Glynn, originally from Ballymena, north Belfast, now living in nearby Burley, said he was not going to alter his routine or be more cautious. “You have to take them out somewhere, don’t you? The great thing about Wilverley is that you can let them off the leash and they enjoy themselves. I don’t want to have to muzzle them every time we come here.”
About six miles away Patrick and Deborah Randall were enjoying a picnic alone at the Anderwood Car Park near Lyndhurst with Samson, their Rough Collie, but were not too fazed by the warning signs elsewhere.
“You get so many people taking their dogs to Wilverley so we enjoy coming somewhere which is much quieter,” Mr Randall said. “We’re not worried though. We had a newsletter from our vet and it didn’t mention anything about the disease nor anything about not walking your dog in the New Forest.”
Mrs Randall speculated the disease may even be spreading from dog fouling. “There is one area near here where for the first 100 yards from the car park you feel like you’re in It’s a Knockout, trying to avoid all the mess.”
The Forestry Commission said the reported cases represent “an extremely small proportion of the many hundreds of dogs that are exercised in the New Forest every day and it is likely that this syndrome is extremely rare”. It advises anyone who think their dog may have fallen ill to contact the Forest Veterinary Clinic or Anderson Moores, the specialist vets from Hursley, near Winchester, who are specialising in treating the disease.
David Walker, from Anderson Moores, advised all owners to seek help within 24 to 48 hours.
He said: “The dogs that have pulled through seem to be the ones that have presented earlier on in the disease course. However, that doesn’t hold true for all the patients and dogs seem to be affected to varying degrees.”
Some owners are worried enough to change their routine. Sue and Terry Jenvey were out before lunch in Knightwood Oak, near Bolderwood, with Prince, their nine-year-old Doberman.
The couple, from Hordle, said they no longer went walking near Wilverton or any of the areas where reports have emerged of dogs falling ill.
Retired carpenter and joiner Mr Jenvey, 72, said: “We’ve always liked coming to Knightwood because of the gravel paths, but we’re a bit more careful where we go now because of what’s happened.”
Mrs Jenvey, 69, who works in the New Forest Visitor Centre, added: “We first heard about something happening to dogs over a year ago and didn’t think too much about it. It sounds like it is getting much more serious now, though.”