It is likely that the changes in the regulations will increase the number of pets travelling between the UK and Europe. This coupled with the loss of pre-entry tick treatment means that we are likely to see more of the “exotic” diseases mentioned above. While the risk of rabies entering the UK is still considered to be very low, and most likely to be brought in by an illegally imported animal, it would be wrong to be complacent and we must remain vigilant. Rabies is a notifiable disease and any suspect case should be reported immediately to your nearest Animal Health Office. The suspected animal should be kept isolated and restrained along with any other animals that which have had contact with the suspect case. A veterinary officer will normally come to the practice immediately and will manage the investigation.
Classical rabies was eradicated from the UK in 1922. The last case of rabies in an animal outside of quarantine in the UK was a dog in Camberley in 1970. The last case of rabies in quarantine was reported in 2008. The Pet Travel Scheme (PETS) was launched in 2000 to allow people to bring in or travel with their pets, while ensuring the UK remains free from rabies and certain other exotic diseases. In total, 752,945 pet animals have entered the UK under PETS since 2000 (ferrets have only been able to enter under the scheme since July 2004), and there have been no cases of rabies in any of these animals (Defra 2010). However since 2001, nine rabid dogs have been illegally introduced in France, and all but one of these was imported from Morocco through Spain. Illegally imported dogs continue to pose a risk of rabies in otherwise rabies-free regions and both Italy and Norway have reported cases of Rabies in wildlife (see recent outbreaks).
It is thought that our island status makes it unlikely that terrestrial rabies will be re-introduced through wildlife and that the largest risk for rabies entering the UK would be through an infected animal imported into the country illegally. Defra have admitted that the changes to the Pet travel regulations coming in to effect on 1 January 2012 do increase the risk of rabies being introduced to the UK. Although the risk is still very small, calculated to be one rabies introduction every 211 years, or one rabies case for 9,809,601 animals imported, however these figures assume 100% compliance with the regulations (V.L.A. 2010).
Defra (2010). Zoonsis Report: UK 2010. London, Defra.
V.L.A. (2010). A quantitative risk assessment on the change in likelihood of rabies introduction into the United Kingdom as a consequence of adopting the existing harmonised Community rules for the non-commercial movement of pet animals.
Rabies in bats
Cases of bats infected with one of the two European bat Lyssavirus (EBL) subtypes, EBL2 have been confirmed in the UK as recently as 2008. One of these cases resulted in the unfortunate death of a bat worker in Scotland in November 2002. EBLV is transmitted through contact with an infected bat, for example through bites, scratches or saliva All reported cases have so far occurred in Daubenton’s bats (Myotis daubentonii), a common species which often comes into human contact as it roosts in houses. Up to 8% of Daubenton’s bats carry antibodies to the virus. Classical rabies has never been recorded in a native European bat species.
Defra takes a precautionary approach to possible contacts with bats by bat workers and others handling bats on a routine basis as well as any incident where a member of the public has come into contact with a bat. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) has detailed guidance, which includes recommended pre-exposure vaccination for those handling bats, and immediate precautionary administration of rabies vaccine for anyone bitten or scratched by a bat. In light of the HPA guidance, it is not necessary to automatically euthanase a healthy bat for rabies testing involved in a biting or scratching incident.
Advice for veterinary surgeons dealing with bats
- Veterinary staff dealing with bats on a frequent basis should be vaccinated against rabies (see below). Handling of bats should where possible be limited to those staff that have been vaccinated.
- Bats should always be handled with protective gloves. Latex gloves are suitable for the smaller species and light leather gloves such as driving gloves with disposable latex gloves on top are suitable for the larger species.
- A suitable field guide (e.g. A Field guide to British Bats, Greenaway and Hutson, 1990, Bruce Coleman books, Uxbridge) should be used to familiarise staff as to the different bat species.
- All bats acting strangely and Daubenton’s bats in particular should be handled with extra care.
- Suspicious cases should be reported to DEFRA.
- If bitten or scratched by a bat, wounds should be cleaned with soap and water or a suitable disinfectant and medical advice sought.
- Medical advice on the need for post exposure protection can be obtained from the Central Public Health Laboratory (020 8200 6868).
- The Veterinary Laboratory Agency carries out surveillance of submitted bat carcasses. All dead bats (not just suspected rabies cases) should be submitted to the Rabies Diagnostic Unit, Veterinary Laboratories Agency, New Haw, Addlestone, Surrey, KT15 3NB.
Rabies vaccines can be obtained from General medical Practitioners (GPs) and should be made available free of charge to those working with bats. GPs can obtain vaccines free of charge from the Central Public Health laboratory (0208 200 4400).
Advice to clients
Clients should be discouraged from handling or approaching sick, injured or trapped bats.
Assistance should be sought through the Bat Conservation Trust helpline 0845 130 0228 or in Scotland, the Scottish SPCA 0870 7377722 or the Scottish Natural Heritage Batline 01738 458663.