Babesiosis: symptoms and treatments

Although Babesiosis is rare, it can potentially be severe for dogs. Petplan veterinary expert Brian Faulkner explains what you need to know about the disease and how you can prevent infection.

Babesiosis is a disease caused by a tiny, single-celled blood parasite called Babesia. While it is rare in the UK, it does exist in this country and can be very serious. Dogs may also come into contact with the parasite if they travel or live abroad. Babesiosis is more common in Southern and Eastern European countries.

Causes of Babesiosis in dogs

Dogs can get Babesiosis if they have been bitten by a tick that is carrying the Babesia parasite. They can also become infected if bitten by an infected dog.

Dogs that spend a lot of time outdoors, especially in wooded areas, are at increased risk of incurring bites from ticks with the Babesia parasite. This is especially true in the summer months, from May through September, when tick populations are highest.

Symptoms of Babesiosis in dogs

The incubation period for Babesiosis is about two weeks on average. Nevertheless, symptoms may remain mild and, in some cases, not be diagnosed for months or years.

With Babesiosis, the secondary reaction of the dog’s own immune system is what causes the most damage. The Babesia parasite replicates in the dog’s red blood cells, resulting in haemolytic anaemia, a disorder where red blood cells are destroyed faster than they are made and haemoglobin is released into the body. This release of haemoglobin can also lead to jaundice.

The following are indicators that your dog might have Babesiosis-induced haemolytic anaemia:

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

How is Babesiosis diagnosed?

If you suspect that your dog has Babesiosis, it is important to take them to the vet straightaway. You will need to give the vet a thorough history of your dog's health, including a background history of symptoms, and possible incidents that might have precipitated the condition.

Your vet will perform a complete physical examination of your dog, as well as take a blood sample to check for evidence of the parasite and the extent of the damage it has caused. 

How is Babesiosis treated?

The treatment for Babesiosis recommended by the vet will depend on how serious and advanced the condition is. Most dogs with Babesiosis can be treated on an outpatient basis, but severely ill patients will be hospitalised to receive fluid therapy or a blood transfusion. Your vet will want to monitor your dog's progress, and will schedule regular follow-up appointments including repeat blood samples.

When one dog in a multi-dog household is diagnosed with Babesiosis, it makes sense to screen all the dogs in the household to check if they have also been exposed to the ticks that spread the disease.

How is Babesiosis prevented?

Currently there is no means of preventing against the Babesia parasite itself and so prevention involves being vigilant about tick prevention and removal. If your dog is spending time in an area that is a known tick habitat, you can take action to prevent your pet contracting Babesiosis.

Check your dog daily for the presence of ticks and remove them promptly and safely using a tick removal tool. Don’t just pull them out with your fingers. The longer a tick stays on the dog’s body, the more chance they have of transmitting the disease. Also, check that any external parasite treatment that you use is actually effective against ticks. Many flea products do not cover against ticks.

If you’re concerned that your dog may have contracted Babesiosis or another tick-borne condition, don’t hesitate to contact your vet. Ensuring you have the right pet insurance can also give you peace of mind if your dog does need treatment.

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