DOG owners are being warned to be vigilant about a deadly infection their pet can catch just by playing in the garden, as numbers rise.

Dogs could be at risk of serious illness from the increasingly common lungworm disease which can be caused by the animals eating garden slugs, a leading vet charity says.

As slug numbers increase thanks to recent warm, wet weather, families at home are being asked to be mindful of the increased risk of lungworm when letting dogs play in back gardens during the coronavirus lockdown.

Up to now, there have been at least 48 cases of lungworm reported across south Essex including seven in Southend and 12 in the Rayleigh area.

A spokesman for Earl’s Hall Veterinary Group, which has branches in Shoebury, Ashingdon and Eastwood, said calls had been received from concerned dog owners, but staff were not aware of any cases.

However, its website says vets are reporting significantly more cases of dogs with the disease.

It adds: “The worm is known to favour warmer temperatures.

“Foxes can also be infected, and the increase in urban fox populations might be another reason why vets are seeing more cases in dogs, as infected foxes spread worm larvae in their poo.

“Infestations of this lungworm often result in death if not diagnosed, or if left untreated.

“Early diagnosis by a vet, followed by appropriate treatment will, fortunately, usually lead to a full recovery.

“Canine angiostrongylus is a life-threatening disease of dogs caused by a very sophisticated worm.”

The average British garden contains up to 20,000 slugs and snails and, following warmer winter temperatures, that number is likely to increase.

The worm is called Angiostrongylus Vasorum, often referred to as lungworm or French heartworm due to its discovery in France in 1866.

Pharmaceutical company Bayer has set up a map showing how much of a concern it is in any specific area around the country.