FEEDING dogs raw meat may be the cause of death of 24 dogs in the UK, according to a leading scientist who tackled an outbreak of a similar disease in the US.

The disease has claimed the lives of dogs in the West Country, Yorkshire, Worestershire, Co Durham, Surrey and Hampshire, and seems to have struck after the animals were walked in woodland.

Vets say the illness is similar to Alabama Rot, and more recently E coli has been blamed, but this week Prof Brad Fenwick said it was similar to a disease which killed hundreds of Greyhounds in the US in the 1980s.

Prof Fenwick, who previously held research roles at several American universities, said his research found that it may have been caused by a toxin from bacteria found in raw meat. The raw food diet has become increasingly popular over here, and the professor said it was not the feeding of the meat which had caused the problems but the way in which it was stored.

The disease was eliminated in America following improvements in the way raw meat was handled in the Greyhound racing industry and there have been no cases for ten years. “The variable we believed was most responsible for this was food contamination,” he said. “We worked with the Greyhound particularly and changed how they were handling their food, making sure it was refrigerated and high quality.

“As soon as we did this the disease disappeared. That provided additional evidence that this was a food-borne disease not dissimilar to the disease in humans that is its parallel – the E coli food poisoning.”

In the UK since 2012 there have been 24 confirmed cases and 24 unconfirmed. Some dogs have survived and the disease does not appear to pass from animal to animal. The latest victims have been a Weimaraner and a Wire Fox Terrier cross.

Vet Siobhan Buswell of Dorset, whose Labrador died from the condition, is keen that other dog owners are aware of what symptoms to watch out for. “The number of dogs affected overall is very small and cases are only reported between the months of December and March,” she said. “But the things to look out for are wounds on your dog’s face or legs. There is often no explanation for the injury. Affected dogs then become very depressed, tired and lose their appetite and can have episodes of vomiting.

“We’re not certain of the exact cause of this disease but a toxin which goes on to cause acute kidney failure is suspected. It is also thought that this toxin is found in soil and/or rotting vegetation in woodland areas. There is no evidence to suggest that this illness is passed from dog to dog. Two dogs can go on the same walk and one can be affected while the other is absolutely fine.”

One owner believes that washing dogs after walks could protect them from the disease. Two dogs belonging to Steve Smith, a forester from Worcester, died but the third, whom he washed immediately after the walk, survived. “I’m convinced the link is E Coli,” he said. “Two of my dogs, Polly and Jess, weren’t washed and they licked their coats clean, probably ingesting mud and other soil. I gave the third dog, Judy, a bath. She also became ill but did not get kidney failure. I think the bath saved her life.”

The New Forest Dog Owners Group (NFDOG) has collected more than £10,000 to pay for research into the disease. The money will go to Anderson Moores Veterinary Specialists in Hampshire, which has already undertaken two projects. Although nothing positive has been detected, a few more possibilities have been ruled out, it is understood.

NFDOG’s chairman Heather Gould said “We’re not expecting any exciting breakthroughs in the medium term but believe that every test that rules something out is a small step forward. The research fund is open to any vet who wants to research something specific about the illness and applications should be made via Anderson Moores.”