Dog owners are being urged to protect their pets from a potentially fatal disease after an animal hospital near Hitchin has confirmed a rise in cases.

Davies Veterinary Specialists says it has seen a significant increase in the number of critical patients admitted with leptospirosis since the pandemic.

It is an infection which, while historically rare, can make dogs seriously ill - and even kill them - and also be passed onto humans as Weil’s disease.

Prior to the pandemic, the team at Davies would manage two or three cases a year, whereas now they are seeing a case more or less every month.

Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection that dogs catch when they are exposed to urine from wildlife - mostly rats, or farm animals that carry the bacteria.

Dogs can become infected by drinking from a contaminated water source, but also via damaged skin or their gums.

This disease can cause kidney failure, jaundice and bleeding into the lungs.

Dog owners can protect both their pets and themselves by keeping annual booster vaccinations up to date. While vaccinated dogs can still get infected, the risk of acquiring the infection is significantly reduced.

Symptoms of leptospirosis in dogs may include fever, jaundice, muscle pain, limping, weakness and collapse. They may vomit, have a reduced appetite and drink more.

Katherine Clarke, European specialist in small animal internal medicine, said the worrying amount of rising cases seen at the hospital could be attributed to a number of reasons.

She said: "Unfortunately, I think this rise in the number of cases we are currently seeing could be due to a change in the disease itself now with different strains (serovars), a lack of vaccinations, and that some vaccines now do not protect against the most common serovars.

"If you look in your dog’s vaccination book you will see a sticker with an ‘L’ next to it, and either a 2 or a 4.

"Logically, the L2 vaccine protects against two serovars whereas the L4 vaccine protects against four serovars. At Davies, we would advise getting your dog vaccinated with the L4 vaccine, given the rise in cases of leptospirosis in dogs vaccinated with L2."

Katherine added that if a pet owner suspects their dog has contracted leptospirosis, early veterinary intervention is crucial.

Golden retriever puppy Fred is a rare case as he had been fully vaccinated with L4, but contracted leptospirosis. His owner, Rebekah Beck, doesn't know where he picked it up from.

She said: "Fred’s just celebrated his first birthday and we’re so grateful for everyone at Davies for all they did to look after Fred.

"I’m glad we had Fred vaccinated with the L4 vaccine, as we will always do what we believe is the best for him.

"It was a very worrying time, but I’m happy to say that Fred’s back to being a puppy and is very playful."