In 2004, Bella was only 10 years old when she injured her knee chasing a squirrel, and needed surgery to repair her cruciate ligament.
After the surgery she developed MRSA. She fought the infection for weeks but, in the end, she very sadly lost her battle.
Bella was the first dog ever publicly recorded to have died from the human form of MRSA.
By Jill Moss (President and Founder BMF)
Jill and Bella in happier times
In 1992 I was a single woman and I had never had a pet. I was a working actress and hardly at home. Bella (then a six month old puppy) lived down the road from my North London home. She was a gift from a TV company to a young boy who did TV commercials. The family left her alone for hours and I would often find her wandering the streets. I suggested that I walk her when I was free and they willingly gave me the keys to their house. For months I took Bella out for long walks and we bonded quickly. She was always waiting for me by the door every day. I was so happy to see her running around in the park, her pink tongue hanging out of her mouth; she was enjoying her new found freedom.
Often I would enter the house only to find her locked out in the rain, or in the shed, or in the dark; distressed, and so relieved to see me, she would whimper and shake. Being left alone for long periods she had become destructive and she was constantly being punished; her spirits were low. I took her away for a weekend to the coast, I told telephoned the family to say that we were on our way back, and they say that did not want her back. This beautiful creature entered my life and I knew nothing about caring for a dog. Bella came to live with me and a new Bella emerged; we discovered her love of toys, there was no more destruction, just a new vocal member of my family, and I could never imagine life without her again.
A week later, the family turned up at my house and demanded that I return Bella to them; they had all of her Kennel Club papers and threatened to tell the police I had stolen her. Or, they said I could pay them £1000. I borrowed the money, and within a week she was mine – they never returned to my house again.
My family adored Bella, but my life was not suited to having a dog. I had to travel with my work, so family and friends took care of her when I travelled, Bella got used to me going away, but I hated the trips and resented having to leave her for work. I decided to abandon Hollywood dreams and settle for a job reporting traffic jams nearby my home. On early starts 4.00am I would sneak her into the studios, she did her best vocals, and I eventually was fired!
Life was never boring with Bella. The more secure she became; the more her amazing personality emerged. It is hard to explain, but she was not like a dog. The way she chatted endlessly warmed my heart. I began to reply in her language, and we had many long conversations where she really talked and was able to communicate her needs vocally. I got to see a real character emerging – one that entertained so many people.
Bella’s death led me to make the leap from the world of show business into the world of science, and that is why The Bella Moss Foundation exists today.
This is the story about how and why The Foundation was formed, but most of all this is a story of love, respect, and hope. Bella was my companion, buddy and confidante. What happened to her should not ever happen to any dog.
I later discovered that they did not have time for her that she had never socialized or been out for walks. They willingly gave me the keys to their house, and I took Bella out regularly. I was so happy to see her running around, her pink tongue hanging out of her mouth as she enjoying her newfound freedom.
Often I’d enter the house only to find her locked out in the rain, or in the shed, or in the dark, distressed and so relieved to see me. Being left alone for long periods, she had become destructive and was constantly being punished. Her spirit was low. I took her away for a weekend to the coast. The family telephoned me to say they did not want her back, and, there and then, I was the proud to have this beautiful creature in my life. I knew nothing about caring for a dog but Bella immediately settled into my home, taking possession of the garden, and eventually with my love and not much else in terms of training she gave up her destructive ways.
What astounded people the most was her gentle nature, yet alpha female characteristics. Bella knew what she wanted and knew how to communicate her needs. Bella was gentle with people, especially children; but God help you if you were a male dog and you tried to get too close – she had her values!
A born flirt, Bella loved the guys, and the guys loved her – as did all animals and people that came into contact with her.
Bella also adored her food. Many London restaurants were known to prepare special dishes to cater for her expensive taste. When we visited a pet shop, she would go to the shelf, take whatever took her fancy, usually pig ears, and demolish it on the floor! The members of staff in the shop were so amused by this, they often forgot to charge me. Everyone was mesmerised by her beauty and charm.
Tragedy struck our life in 2000 when my partner, who was a pilot, was killed in a plane crash. Bella pulled me through the extremely lonely times; I was never alone. On walks we would chat to people, she loved to make new friends, and somehow she sensed that this was what I needed. We became even closer, and I prayed to God every day not to let me lose her. In a way I became paranoid about something awful happening to her, and I watched for every sign of illness. Bella’s later years brought the onset of arthritis, which meant that long walks were no longer possible.
We began twice-weekly swims, regular short walks, and a new diet which helped manage Bella’s condition, but she was in pain and it broke my heart to see this.
I found out about a vet called Richard Allport, and she began to get regular acupuncture which really helped. My life revolved around getting Bella to all her weekly appointments for swimming and acupuncture, as well as taking her for short walks in between, but I did not mind; she was all I had.
Bella was unable to run but she loved to walk from tree to tree, barking at the squirrels to come down and play! This activity would keep her amused for ages; she would sit down and just bark up a tree, whilst I read a book. I look back to my past and I feel such happiness when I think of us as the two chatty blondes! It is an era gone and one that I will sadly never have back.
On July 17th 2004, Bella was enjoying her usual chase of a squirrel, when she suddenly yelped loudly and collapsed to the ground. Within minutes I had her carried to the car and driven to our local vets. I was told the knee had to be operated on as it was a full rupture, and I fully trusted my vet. I waited for her surgery to end, and was then able to take her home. I was told to keep her resting, which I did. As each day went by she became more ill; no longer talking, or eating, she was a shadow of her former self. I had vets visit us at home, they changed her medication, all of our regular vets were on holiday and so each day different locum vets visited.
Three weeks later, still with vets visiting daily, Bella was still lame and still not eating. I was growing more and more fearful. One day when she was sitting in the garden, she attempted to get up, and her wounded leg suddenly burst open with blood and pus. I got a taxi straight away and rushed her to the vets. They kept her in for a week and kept telling me that she was doing well. The nurses were regularly squeezing pus out of her wound, she was ill, but they assured me that she would get better.
She did not recognise me or respond to my voice when I visited, she had a permanent cough; they told me that all of this was normal. It had been a month since her surgery on the knee. For a month, vets had told me to be patient; but I knew in my heart I had to take action. I asked for a referral to a specialist, but I was made to feel silly. The vets assured me that in-house there were enough specialists, and that there was no need to move her, the said that moving her would be dangerous.
Each day her cough got worse, she could not lift her head, and it seemed that she no longer knew who I was. I called Dogs Today magazine, and I was advised to take her without permission to Davis White referral specialist vets, who specialised in orthopaedic surgery. Against the advice of my vets, we went. As we arrived Bella was rushed into surgery; I had telephoned on the way to explain my circumstances, as I had no veterinary referral.
I sat on the grass outside, waiting and praying. The vet came out and told me she had MRSA, it was all over her body – it had gone from the infected joint into her blood. He said that given her age and the severity of the infection, it was unlikely she would last the night. He also said the words which haunt me for the rest of my life; that has she been brought to him earlier, it could have been treated.
Davis White vets did all they could to try to save her. They kept her for three weeks, I watched as staff always washed their hands and put on barrier nursing clothes. I had to barrier dress too when visiting her in the kennel, where they allowed me to hand-feed her. They took such good care of her; the whole experience was a world away from the sick animals all crammed together in small kennels with dirty floors, where staff attended to them without gloves – that was Medivet. This story could be printed without me mentioning their name, but I say it again – MEDIVET took her life – not just because they gave her MRSA, and not because they misdiagnosed her condition, but because they also refused me a specialist referral, and actively discouraged me from removing her from their premises.
David White veterinary specialists gave Bella and me three weeks more together than we would have had, they cleaned the wound and treated it with antibiotic beads – none of this had been suggested at Medivet. The vets were amazed at her progress. I stayed in a hotel nearby and visited three times a day, I cuddled her and fed her, whilst always wearing barrier nursing clothes. Bella was discharged home after three weeks; the plan was to wait a month to reconstruct her leg. A miracle had occurred, because we both wanted to stay together.
I mentally punish myself every day for not getting Bella seen earlier by Davis White veterinary specialists, or The Royal Veterinary College. These hospitals are equipped to treat MRSA infections. I unfortunately relied on vets that were incompetent; I unfortunately did not know then what I know now.
We got home, and I received three telephone calls from vets at Medivet, and one from the head of Medivet, Asher Tepper. Asher apologised, and said that his father had died of MRSA and so he understood how upset I must be.
Bella began to slowly improve, but late one night her temperature (which I had been monitoring daily) was much too high. I wanted to return to Davis White but they were full and really are a referral hospital. I had no choice but to phone Asher Tepper, who had given me his mobile number. He arranged for Medivet Hendon to see her, assuring me everything would be different this time – I had his word. I could stay with her if she was kept in, and I need not leave her alone.
When we arrived at Medivet Hendon, I assumed staff would greet us with full protective clothing as they had at Davis White, but instead the vets examined Bella with no gloves. I pointed out her MRSA, and they said “What MRSA?” Asher had gone away on holiday and these were locum vets. They told me they were not equipped to treat animals with serious infections, so I took Bella home.
The next day she collapsed. I had nowhere else to go, so we returned to Medivet. I did not know about the Royal Veterinary College at the time, otherwise I would have gone there. My friend who was a human nurse came with me; we insisted that staff wear gowns and gloves. They said that Bella needed IV treatment for dehydration and would need to stay overnight; I said that I was staying too. I slept the night on the consult floor with Bella. The day staff left and the night nurse came on duty.
It was a hot August night and Bella was gasping for breath. Tracy Tomlin walked into the room and said that she could not treat Bella because she had a child with an auto immune illness and so could not come in contact with MRSA. I asked who else would treat Bella, and she said “Not me”, and walked out.
My friend who was a human nurse looked at Bella and noticed that she was badly gasping for breath. She said that we needed to turn her over, and once we did this she was more comfortable. Bella was in and out of consciousness, and on a drip. We had to clean her bodily fluids, and we used incontinent pads to keep her clean. I walked from the consult room to the toilet and back and forth, there was no infection control. No staff were able to help us, one nurse refused to treat Bella or help me clean her when I asked.
I called a nurse in, and she screamed at me telling me she had other patients. I demanded the phone so that I could call Asher, the head vet. I used the veterinary phone in the consult room; the nurse pushed the number underneath the door, refusing to enter.
During the night Bella became worse, her breathing became more laboured. I threatened to sue if an agency nurse who would treat her was not brought in at the cost to Medivet. The next morning an agency nurse came and helped me clean her. The day staff would only changer her IV drip and check her vitals, all else was left to me. I lay next to her, she was weak, and when she looked into my eyes, I could tell – she had enough, she wanted to stop fighting, but I couldn’t. I paid a private vet to come into the surgery; he did a blood transfusion as a last resort.
For another day and night I slept next to her, not leaving, cleaning her, comforting her and putting drops of water into her dry mouth, but nothing was working.
There was nothing left for us to do. I lay next to her and she reached out her paw with the little strength left in her weak body. She had fought for four months to stay with me, she looked into my eyes. She wrapped her paw around my arm, and I knew she was saying, “Mummy let me go”.
The next morning – day three of this hell, day three of lying on a dirty floor refusing to leave her – the head vet returned. I was told that Bella has pulmonary edema, she was drowning in her own fluids, her body organs had collapsed, and she was dying.
There was a garden at the back of the vets, and the head vet arranged for Bella to be taken on a stretcher to the tree. On the grass, I sat in front of her looking into her big brown eyes for the last time; she looked at me, opening and closing her eyes, until she finally was gone. I cried into her fur, both of us exhausted, and I said to Bella, “Your death will not be in vain, other animals will live because of your suffering; other owners will know how to stop this. I will make sure of this – I promise you.” My beautiful Bella was gone, but no longer suffering.
I sat with her until the receptionist came out and said, “Miss Moss, we need you to sign the insurance bill, you owe us £15,000. Oh, and by the way, because Bella had MRSA we cannot keep her body in our freezer, where would you like us to send it?”
I could not leave her with people who did not care, so I brought her body home. I wrapped her in blankets. I lay on my couch with my beautiful Bella, crying as I watched her body grow cold and still. To this day I get flashbacks of that night she went cold; the smell of death in the room still haunts me. I talked to her all night; I think I may have gone mad.
When daylight broke, I called Cambridge Crematorium and I put her in the car. She had always loved to go in the car and we had been on so many fun trips, but this would be our last journey together. Her body was so heavy that the crematorium had to bring her in on a wheelbarrow.
In the chapel, she looked so peaceful. She had suffered so much for the past four months. For what seemed like hours, I waited, and then I was handed a small wooden box. I could not understand how Bella, so large in life, could be in this tiny box, still warm. I just stared at the box in my hands.
My wonderful fiancé, Bella and I were all together now. Both of them killed, and now in boxes. The madness set in; I went home with the box, I smoked and drank bottles of whisky. All I did with my time was search the internet for information on MRSA in animals, and found that there was nothing!
During this time, my own foot began to get red and sore, the skin kept peeling off and yellow pus was coming out. It got extremely painful and would not heal. When I eventually went to the doctor, he sent me straight to hospital. The infection turned out to be MRSA; a particularly virulent strain that would only respond to two antibiotics. I was told that due to having to nurse Bella myself, a cut in my foot had contacted her infected bodily fluids. I was unable to walk.
I confess that at this point, I didn’t feel there was much point going on, so I refused the antibiotics. With each day that went by, I grew weaker, and my body felt as if it were closing down on me. The antibiotics sat on my bedroom table, but all I could only stare at them and wonder what the point was of trying to get better. Everyone around me was scared.
I set up a website to tell people about my experience. Immediately doctors, vets, pet owners, farmers and the media were all emailing me daily, wanting to know more about my story, and how MRSA was transmitted from humans to animals. I had made Bella a promise not to let her death be in vain, and if I died I could not keep it, so I took the antibiotics, and slowly made a recovery.
The fact that MRSA was now crossing over from humans to animals was of great interest to the international press, and I ended up telling my story over and over again. However, what followed shocked me, some vets were being interviewed on the radio saying that MRSA was not a problem for animals and I began to get requests to drop my campaign.
Having fought off my own MRSA infection and set up a website, people got in touch to ask for more information on the transmission of bacteria from humans to animals. Much to my surprise I found that some senior veterinary academics and researchers were actually keen to help me with advice and information, as well as give me support that I would otherwise never have had.
So, despite being overcome with grief, I knew that I now had a new purpose. For the first time I felt a sense of mission. BMF became a Charitable Company in 2005 with the help of Claire Raynor who became our first patron.
While I was setting up BMF, I was also preparing statements to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to complain of the treatment Bella had received from Medivet. At the time I owed them £10,000 for veterinary bills. They said they were going to sue me, but when the editor of the News of the World told them that the paper would cover the story, they dropped their case.
The national press were very keen to promote my story as Bella was the first recorded animal to die of the human strain of MRSA. We had massive press coverage which helped the charity enormously.
The RCVS investigation into Medivet lasted nearly 18 months before the RCVS preliminary investigation committee decided that, although Medivet would be reprimanded for refusing me a referral to a veterinary hospital, and that their treatment of Bella could have been better; these did not amount gross misconduct which was the only meaningful offence under the Veterinary Surgeons Act of 1966. Yet, failure to diagnose her infection quickly and the refusal to refer to a hospital, was what cost Bella her life.
A leading barrister went over my case, as he thought there may be a legal precedent for veterinary negligence, but in the end the financial cost of pursuing this course of action was just too high.
The plain fact is that in the UK, there is almost no affordable recourse for pet owners who believe that the treatment or care their pet receives from a vet has been negligent or incompetent. Neither are there any mandatory guidelines that vets have to follow in their clinical work; their only accountability is for their behaviour, not their clinical judgment or conduct, and this means that they can give your pet terrible care as long as they don’t lie to you. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, under the 1966 Veterinary Surgeons Act, does not have the power to discipline vets for negligence.
I spent every hour of every day and most nights at my PC; researching, emailing, and responding to people who needed information and support. Cases just kept pouring in. It was hard seeing so much suffering, it made me realise that Bella’s death was only the tip of the iceberg.
I was also exhausted. I was still only just recovering from MRSA myself and I was experiencing what my doctor told me was post-traumatic stress. I had constant flashbacks of seeing Bella die.
Although I was initially perceived by the veterinary profession as a loose cannon, due to the help I got from senior people, along with the media coverage; everything began to change. From being stonewalled or threatened, I was suddenly being invited to attend meetings with the veterinary associations, and Defra asked me to become the only lay member of their committee on MRSA in animals. This was the turning point. I focused less on Medivet’s neglect for Bella, and on more on the bigger picture.
Turning the charitable company into a Registered Charity was very hard work and meant changing some of the things we thought we should do. The charity commissioners could not accept our application if we were actively campaigning – it had to be an educational charity. This meant that the changes we wanted to see in the 1966 Veterinary Surgeons Act had to be removed from our application, and all emphasis had to be on education. After much hard work and a lot of advice from the Charities Commission, The Bella Moss Foundation became a Registered Charity in February 2007.
Today The Foundation has immense respect within the veterinary and animal health profession for the work we have done promoting change through education. We could easily have become an unnoticed group on the outside of the issue, but because we were seen to be helping the veterinary profession, more and more veterinary leaders came on board. Those who first took the risk of listening to me are now among my most active supporters, and this includes some of the world’s leading veterinary clinicians. As a result of the personal networking relationships I have built up over five years, I now sit on working groups and government committees as a spokesperson for the British pet-owning public.
MRSA was not generally known about in veterinary health until the work of BMF. I discovered that hygiene protocols in human and animal healthcare are voluntary, not mandatory; this is something I still want to see changed. If standards of infection control in veterinary practice are unregulated, then pets are exposed to the risk of post-operative infections in the same way that people are in hospitals. The European Union, UK and USA Kennel club and major public health organisations are all now collaborating with us on promoting the message about good hygiene and the responsible use of antibiotics to prevent the spread of MRSA.
If you had told me that one day I would be founder and president of an international animal welfare charity, I would have laughed. Every time we help to save a life, I know that I am doing something that most people never get a chance to do.
The most difficult thing even now is trying to influence and change how the veterinary profession approaches infection control. Our educational material is being distributed worldwide, and the pressure is on for vets to adopt stringent infection-control protocols to protect patients. If we act now, we may be able to avoid the state of play that exists in hospitals.
I have acquired so much knowledge about infection control, prevention and treatment in a very short time. Being on the Defra committee and working so closely with the veterinary profession has helped me to develop a broader view of antimicrobial resistance. I have been able to understand both the veterinary professional’s perspective and that of the pet-owner. I have used this knowledge to try to break the cycle of blame that so frequently presents itself every time a post-operative infection is diagnosed. Far too much time is spent with vet and owner locked in dispute about how a pet contracts an infection – I want to concentrate on prevention.
I am privileged to have a wonderful board of clinical advisors who support and help me daily with my work, they are consulted regularly by vets and by Defra. The knowledge which we have built up in the past eight years has enabled us to help so many people, their pets and their vets
Through the help of The Foundation many animals have recovered from MRSA, and for those animals that have died The Foundation has been there for their families.
BMF is also a point of reference and support for veterinarians and pet-owners around the world. Our educational work has been one of the reasons that antimicrobial resistance is now part of the veterinary student curriculum, and I hope in the future that there will be no need of our work, because the necessary standards of hygiene and protocols will be the norm, so that the risk to animals will be minimal.
People tell me that without the information they get from The Foundation they would be completely in the dark. Now they can help their vets and ensure they get the best care for their pets. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed, and to a certain extent stuck in time; with every new case, I relive my own experience.
I still find it hard. Not a day goes by when I don’t want to escape from the world of bugs and disease, but because I had fought so hard to keep Bella alive – and lost – I believe I have to carry on.
I want BMF to be a real legacy that I will leave behind after my own death, and to do that my commitment needs to be total. Perhaps the biggest hurdle for me was an emotional one. I had to move away in my mind from being a bereaved pet-owner to being president of a charity. I had to learn to think strategically, confront enemies who wanted to silence me, and to put my emotions aside for the good of the public and the bigger picture. I had to quickly learn about managing a charity, which demanded of me skills I lacked, such as fundraising and event management, and at the same time cope with the emotional demands of people seeking my help with their own MRSA problems.
I keep going because there is no turning back now. I have to work in the evening as BMF takes up about 6 hours of my time daily, and I do not receive an income.
Without The Bella Moss Foundation, where would people go for information and support? We have been instrumental in changing treatment of animals with serious infections and saving lives, not a day goes by where somebody does not tell me how much Bella has made a difference, for me, that is all I can ask for.
In a way, Bella is still with me. The unique bond we shared cannot be replicated and her spirit lives on here through the Bella Moss Foundation.
Bella, like me, was stubborn, and strong-minded, I thank God we found each other.
Bella – you will always live in my heart and the hearts of those who read our story.
BMF public response to Panorama “It shouldn’t happen in a vets”
BBC Panorama TV Progamme
Be informed read our Choosing a vet page
Help us help other animals by donating today