Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.
Alabama Rot is a relatively new disease that was first reported in the 1980s. Characterised by painful skin lesions, usually on the feet and legs, the condition can lead to fatal kidney failure.
With so many unknowns associated with the disease, including where it has come from and how to prevent it, it remains a scary condition that many owners have come to dread.
Thankfully the condition is rare and while we still have a lot of unanswered questions concerning it, the knowledge we do have can help us to keep our pets safe, or to catch the disease early and enable it to be treated successfully.
A Brief History of Alabama Rot
In the 1980s a strange disease was reported among racing greyhounds in the US state of Alabama. Symptoms included skin lesions and kidney failure, and initial thoughts suggested a genetic component to the condition. Meaning it was more liable to affect certain breeds, specifically greyhounds.
The condition was nicknamed 'Alabama Rot' and after an initial surge in cases, it dwindled and virtually disappeared, relegating the condition to veterinary history books. The short-lived nature of the disease and its rarity meant it was never researched at the time, and there remains debate as to whether the disease of the 1980s is the same disease being seen over 30 years later.
Because the symptoms of the modern condition are similar to the disease of the 1980s, the nickname Alabama Rot has returned. The veterinary name for the condition is cutaneous and renal glomerular vasculopathy (CRGV).
Alabama Rot seems to have appeared in the UK in 2012, when cases of dogs with lesions and acute kidney failure were first reported. It was not until 2014, with a rise in cases, that it was suspected this was the same condition as seen in the US decades before.
Since 2012 cases have steadily risen in the UK, though it remains a very rare illness. It has been seen in all manner of breeds and in dogs of all ages, though gundogs, hounds and pastoral breeds may be at higher risk.
Confirmed Cases of Alabama Rot in the UK
What Causes Alabama Rot?
Since its appearance, efforts have been made to try to determine the cause of Alabama Rot. There are a number of theories about what might be responsible for the disease.
The original cases in the US all occurred among greyhounds at a specific racetrack. Of the 168 dogs affected, 124 only ever developed skin lesions and with sufficient time made a full recovery. Those that developed kidney failure all tended to be closely related which caused researchers at the time to suppose there was a genetic link. Initially it seemed the condition only affected greyhounds.
Later cases of Alabama Rot in the US were tentatively linked to the bacteria E Coli. E Coli releases toxins which can cause skin lesions and kidney failure as seen in the dogs suffering Alabama Rot in the US. However, so far all the confirmed cases of Alabama Rot in the UK have tested clear for E Coli, suggesting that the disease in the UK is caused by something different and is not the same as that in the US, despite the similarity in symptoms.
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Other suggested causes for Alabama Rot in the UK include Leptospirosis, Lymes Disease, contact with toxic plants such as Giant Hogweed, radiation poisoning or contact with heavy metals left over from military ordinance. All these theories have been ruled out.
One theory that remains in contention is a type of fish bacteria called Aeromonas which causes a similar disease in fish. A study is ongoing (as of 2022) to determine if this might be the cause of Alabama Rot in the UK.
What Are the Symptoms?
Alabama Rot begins with skin lesions. These often start on the paws or legs, but can also be found on the face and abdomen. They can initially look minor, like a graze or a spot the dog may have rubbed, but soon develop into ulcerating lesions that spread across the body.
The commonest symptoms to follow are loss of appetite, vomiting and general lethargy. Dogs may become lame and in later stages of the disease can develop hypothermia, where the body temperature drops too low and the patient shivers uncontrollably.
The next stage of the condition is kidney failure. This occurs one to nine days after the lesions appear. Signs of this can include increased thirst, being depressed and off their food, or vomiting.
How Is It Treated?
Because the cause of Alabama Rot is still unknown in the UK, treatment options are limited. What is important is that a dog receives medical attention sooner rather than later to maximise its chances of survival.
Dogs presenting with skin lesions thought to be Alabama Rot will have a blood test to assess the function of the kidneys. Even if this comes back normal, it may need to be repeated over the next few days to ensure the kidneys remain healthy. If the dog is only suffering from skin lesions then treatment for these will be given and the dog monitored. It is unclear if dogs suffering from skin lesions alone are actually suffering from Alabama Rot, or some other condition. Currently, the only way to confirm a case of Alabama Rot is to perform a post-mortem after a patient has died from the suspected condition.
Treatment for kidney failure is vitally important and needs to be begun as soon as possible. Dogs known to have survived the condition were placed on drips swiftly and this appears to have been key in their treatment.
In 2018, the Royal Veterinary College announced a breakthrough treatment for Alabama Rot called plasmapheresis. This involves filtering the dog's blood for toxins, including that causing Alabama Rot, and returning it to the patient. The treatment was tried after it was noticed that a similar condition in humans improved after a plasma exchange.
Six dogs with advanced Alabama Rot were treated with a plasma exchange and two made a full recovery. Though this seems a low number, it was the first time any dog so severely ill with the disease survived. This leads to hopes that the treatment could be part of the solution to surviving Alabama Rot.
How Do I Prevent It?
At this moment in time, because the cause of Alabama Rot is unknown, it is difficult to suggest how to prevent it. A tentative link has been made between dogs walked in muddy areas and the disease, which has led to the suggestion that washing muddy paws after a walk could help prevent the disease. While there is no firm evidence to prove this can prevent Alabama Rot, it is not something that will cause harm to the dog either.
Avoiding areas where there have been confirmed cases of Alabama Rot may be another option - for a regularly updated map of UK cases see here.
Alabama Rot is more prevalent during winter and spring, however cases have been noted at other times of the year. Because the condition can only be correctly diagnosed by examining a dog after it has passed away from the illness, this means that some cases where the dog has recovered may have gone unrecognised.
Alabama Rot can affect any breed at any age. Statistically there have been more cases seen in spaniels, Labradors and Hungarian Vizslas, however, this may have more to do with these being working breeds that are more commonly exposed to muddy areas in the winter and also have shorter fur than some other breeds.
The important thing to remember is that Alabama Rot is extremely rare. If you have any concerns about sores on your dogs' feet or body, especially if they have recently walked in muddy areas, then seek veterinary advice immediately. The sooner the dog receives treatment, the more likely they are to survive.
- Alabama Rot: Symptoms and Prevention | RSPCA
- Alabama rot | Dog health | The Kennel Club
Alabama rot, also known as CRGV, is a very rare, potentially life-threatening disease that blocks and damages blood vessels in a dog’s skin and kidneys.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2022 Sophie Jackson