ARCHIVE: Veterinary surveillance: Pet animals

This page gives an introduction to how we look for diseases in pet animals like cats and dogs in the UK and has links to other pages on the Defra website. There is a separate page for birds. You can find further information on other websites by following the link at the bottom of this page.

Pet animals in the UK

Photo of a cat - Photo copyright Jane Gibbens, animals like cats, dogs, and rabbits are kept as pets, as well as more exotic ones like snakes and other reptiles. Besides being kept for companionship, dogs have a variety of other uses. These range from tasks such as guide dogs for the blind, or sniffer or patrol dogs for the police, to working on farms or guarding private property. They are also used in recreational pursuits such as greyhound racing or in sports shooting for retrieving game. Dogs were once used for pulling small carts or carriages but this was outlawed on public highways in the 19th century. Cats have an important role in keeping down the numbers of rats and mice on many farms, and ferrets may be used to help control wild rabbits.

However, many animals are kept solely for leisure and enjoyment as companion animals. All captive animals are protected under the Protection of Animals Act 1911.

How many pet animals are there in the UK?

There are no official figures for the numbers of pet animals kept in the UK. Owners do not have to register or license them and they are not included in any census. However, the Petfood Manufacturers Association carries out surveys and estimated that in 2001 there were around 7.5 million cats, 6.1 million dogs, 1.1 million rabbits, 0.9 million hamsters and 0.7 million guinea pigs in the UK. The Federation of British Herpetologists estimates that there are around 5 million snakes, lizards etc kept as pets.

Looking for diseases in pets.

The animal owner is the person most likely to notice disease. Private vets know a lot about diseases in their area and can use this knowledge to advise their clients. They may send samples to a laboratory who may then be able to put together information from a wide area.

Rabies is a notifiable disease, so any suspicion of it must be reported. Government does not at present collect much information on other small animal diseases. However, we do have a voluntary reporting scheme called DACTARI. We ask private vets to tell us about certain infections which cats and dogs may have brought back from abroad. We hope to develop better links for monitoring other diseases as we put the Veterinary Surveillance Strategy into place.

Which are the most important diseases of pets in the UK?

From the point of view of Government, the most important diseases are those which can spread from pets to people. Many species can be affected by salmonella which in some circumstances may spread to their owners. Of the diseases which can be brought back from abroad, two which affect dogs are a particular worry because they can cause serious human disease. These are Leishmaniasis and a tapeworm called Echinococcus multilocularis.

Owners are often more aware of other diseases of pets, most of which do not affect people. Different diseases are important in different species. The commonest diseases of dogs are probably skin problems, diarrhoea with various causes, and kennel cough. Distemper is a serious disease which used to be common but now is generally prevented by vaccination.

In cats, respiratory diseases like “cat flu” are common, as well as skin allergy caused by flea bites. Two serious diseases which can be controlled by vaccination are feline leukaemia and panleukopaenia (sometimes called “distemper” although it is unrelated to the dog disease).

Many rabbit diseases are caused by incorrect feeding or unsuitable accommodation. Infections include Myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease. Both of these are usually fatal but can be prevented by vaccination. Guinea pigs quite often get mange, and a fairly common disease caused by a bacterium called Yersinia which can also affect people. Tortoises may have problems with parasitic worms, particularly just before or just after hibernation.

You may be able to find information about the animals and diseases you are interested in on some of the other websites on our links page.

Further information

  • Glossary
  • Other websites - These sites may be useful if you are interested in further information about pet animals in the UK. Please note that Defra does not necessarily endorse the content, information or opinions of these sites.
  • Bringing pets to the UK information on the Defra website.

Page last modified: August 28, 2008

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