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What is Babesiosis? Expert advice on symptoms and treatments

Brown cockapoo looking sad

As more and more dogs travel abroad, and as our climate seems to be getting milder, the UK is at risk of invading new parasites to which our pets are not currently immune.

This week’s story of the unfortunate incident in which a dog has died from Babesia, probably spread via ticks, has caused alarm.

Petplan vet Brian Faulkner takes an in-depth look at Babesiosis, including the cause, the symptoms, and the precautions you can take to keep your dog as safe as possible…

What is Babesiosis?

Babesiosis is the diseased state caused by the protozoal (single celled) parasites called Babesia. Infection in a dog may occur by tick transmission or direct transmission via blood transfer from a bite from an infected dog.

The most common mode of transmission is by tick bite, as the Babesia parasite uses the tick as a reservoir to reach host mammals. The incubation period averages about two weeks, but symptoms may remain mild and some cases are not diagnosed for months to years. The parasite replicates in the red blood cells, resulting in both direct and immune-mediated haemolytic anaemia, where the red blood cells (RBCs) are broken down through haemolysis (destruction) and haemoglobin is released into the body.

This release of haemoglobin can lead to jaundice, and to anaemia when the body cannot produce enough new red blood cells to replace the ones being destroyed. In fact the secondary reaction of the body’s own immune system causes the most damage.

Dogs that spend a lot of time outdoors, especially in wooded areas, are at an increased risk for tick bites and for contracting this parasite. This is especially true in the summer months, from May through September, when tick populations are highest. Being vigilant about tick prevention and removal is the best method for avoiding the onset of Babesiosis.

What are the symptoms?

  • Lack of energy
  • Lack of appetite
  • Pale gums
  • Fever
  • Enlarged abdomen
  • Black coloured urine
  • Yellow or orange skin
  • Weight loss
  • Discoloured stool

How is Babesiosis diagnosed?

You will need to give a thorough history of your dog’s health, including a background history of symptoms, and possible incidents that might have precipitated this condition. Your vet will perform a complete physical exam on your dog.

A blood chemical profile, a complete blood count, a urinalysis and an electrolyte panel will be conducted.  Your vet will likely recommend some specific tests to look for the parasite as well as secondary red blood cell destruction.

How is Babesiosis treated?

Ultimately the treatment depends on how serious and advanced the condition is at presentation.  Most patients can be treated on an outpatient basis, but severely ill patients, especially those requiring fluid therapy or blood transfusions, should be hospitalised.  Your vet will want to monitor your dog’s progress, and will schedule regular follow-up appointments to repeat blood profiles, complete blood counts, urinalyses and electrolyte panels.

In addition, when one dog housed in a multi-dog kennel is diagnosed with Babesiosis, all of the dogs in the house will need to be screened since there is a high percentage of carrier animals in kennel situations.

As always, it’s vital that your pet has dog insurance for added peace of mind.

How is Babesiosis prevented?

If your dog is spending time in an area that is a known tick habitat, prevention is the best course of action. Check your dog daily for the presence of ticks and remove them promptly. The longer a tick stays on the body, the more chance of blood becoming infected.  Please check that your external parasite control is actually effective against ticks; many flea products do not cover against ticks.

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One Response to What is Babesiosis? Expert advice on symptoms and treatments

  1. Ali says:

    A terrible disease. An early diagnosis of this disease will result in a better prognosis. If your dog is unwell don’t wait and take him to the vet!

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