AN official inquiry has been launched into the risk of MRSA spreading among animals following the first recorded death of a dog from the superbug.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has set up a committee to investigate the extent of superbugs in vets surgeries.
There are concerns that bugs such as MRSA methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus could be passed from animals to humans, and that there is a risk of its transmission into the food chain if cattle catch it.
Next weekend Jill Moss, an actress from north London, will mark the next stage in her campaign to raise awareness of the risks by planting a tree in memory of her dog Bella. The 10-year-old white samoyed became the first recorded canine death from MRSA following an operation for a torn ligament.
Moss, a member of the Defra committee who is campaigning for wider recognition of
MRSA through her charity the Bella Moss Foundation, said: "The real problem is that vets are reluctant to admit they have a problem in their surgeries. They blame the owners but often they are operating in conditions that arent good enough.
"If I had known about MRSA in animals or understood the risk, Bella could have been saved not just from death, but from inhumane suffering."
Moss, who has appeared in television programmes such as The Bill and EastEnders, added: "At least Bella was a wake-up call and the government is now taking the issue very seriously."
Bella died last year after injuring herself chasing a squirrel near Mosss home in Edgware. She was treated at a nearby veterinary emergency surgery but a week later her wound became infected.
The MRSA went undiagnosed and Bella was transferred to Davies Veterinary Specialists, an orthopaedic vet hospital in Bedfordshire, where MRSA was diagnosed.
The dog had a further operation on its knee but did not recover and a month later had to be put down. Since Bellas death at least one other pet, a dog from Dorset, has been recorded as dying from MRSA.
The antibiotic-resistant infection is rife in British hospitals and contributes to about 5,000 human deaths each year. Although officials admit they do not know what, if any, danger MRSA in animals may pose to human health, there are fears that strains of the bacteria might enter the food chain in the same way as BSE.
There is also concern that infected pets may be able to pass MRSA on to their owners, which would have serious implications for frail old people and children living with dogs and cats.
The staphylococcus aureus bacteria that causes MRSA is harmless in anyone who is healthy it is carried by many people in their noses and armpits but it can prove fatal to those with a weakened immune system and can enter a body through the smallest cut.
The first case of MRSA in an animal was documented in 1999 by David Lloyd, professor of dermatology at the Royal Veterinary College, who has been warning about the bugs potential impact for many years.
University College Dublin scientists recently found signs of the bug in 25 animals including 14 dogs, eight horses, a cat, a rabbit and a seal, as well as 10 workers in veterinary surgeries. It is not known how the seal came to be seen by a vet.
The researchers say the strain found in horses is unlike anything they have seen before and are convinced that at least one of the types of MRSA they discovered has been passed from humans to animals.
In the past 18 months, 310 cases of MRSA in animals in Britain have been reported to the government. The British Veterinary Association (BVA) had previously claimed there were between 10 and 20 infections a year.
Vets are being urged by the BVA to take precautions such as wearing sterile gloves and masks to prevent vulnerable pets picking up potentially deadly infections while undergoing operations.
Dr Freda Scott-Park, president-elect of the BVA, said there had been no recorded cases of MRSA being passed from animals to humans. She also insisted meat controls since the BSE crisis were so stringent that it was highly unlikely the antibiotic-resistant bacteria would be passed into the food chain.
Defra said the committee on MRSA in animals had been set up as a precaution and it was designing studies to obtain information on the extent of the problem and its possible implications for livestock and humans.
Additional reporting: Roger Dobson