UK Dog owners have recently become concerned about news reports of an ‘outbreak’ of Babesiosis; a disease usually only seen in parts of continental Europe, Africa, Asia and North America. National newspapers are reporting that one dog that has already died from the illness and that 3 more dogs are being treated by vets.
Vets are urging dog owners not to panic as so far these cases seem to be confined to the same area in Harlow, Essex.
What is Babesiosis?
Babesiosis is a dog illness caused by Babesia Canis or Babesia gibsoni , a protozoal parasite(1) that is transmitted by ticks; it infects red blood cells and can cause severe anaemia and immune-mediated haemolytic anaemia. Babesia is usually only found in the warmer climates of North America, continental Europe, Africa and Asia.
How did Babesiosis get into the UK?
It is thought that the parasite carrying tick (or ticks) may have entered the UK on an animal using the Pet Passport Scheme (since the requirements were relaxed, animals no longer need to have treatment for ticks applied before they return to the UK!) or via one of the many illegally imported puppies that enter the UK for sale and have had no treatments at all.
Can humans get Babesiosis?
Babesiosis is relatively uncommon in humans, but it is thought to be the second-most common blood parasite of mammals in may . These parasites can have a major impact on health of domestic animals in areas without severe winters, cattle especially are a major host in some parts of the world.
It is not thought that the Canine Babesia parasites can infect humans or other domestic pets.
How is Babesiosis transmitted to dogs?
It is most commonly transmitted through bites from the Dermacentor Reticulatus and Rhipicephalus sanguineus ticks, which carry the babesia parasite, but it can also be (more rarely) transmitted through the placenta, from mum to pups, or via blood transfer from dog bites.
Why does it cause a problem for dogs?
Babesia Canis infects the red blood cells and as it reproduces by dividing itself, the infected blood cells rupture and release more parasites that can then enter other red blood cells; this in itself causes anaemia (loss/reduction of red blood cells), but it can also lead to immune-mediated haemolytic anaemia where the dog’s immune system starts attacking its own blood cells!
What are the symptoms of Babesiosis?
Infected dogs may have a variety of symptoms, which can include one, some or all of the following
- Slow progressing infection with vague signs
- Pale mucous membranes (gums)
- Lack of appetite
- Dark, discoloured or red urine
- Discoloured faeces
- Yellow skin and mucous membranes (jaundice)
- Enlarged Abdomen
- Swollen lymph nodes (Glands)
- Rapid heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Weight loss
How is Babesiosis diagnosed?
The illness is hard to detect, and it is extremely rare in the UK, but your vet will be able to take some blood samples that can be examined and/or sent off to a laboratory for further testing.
Because vets in the UK are not used to dealing with or seeing this infection (although they are all on high alert now!), it is really important that you give them as much information as possible about your dog’s recent history including when the symptoms started, any travelling you have done with them or any contact with ticks.
How is Babseosis Treated?
The main treatment of Babesiosis will reduce the presence of parasites in the blood, however, the infection itself may not be completely eliminated and dogs that are diagnosed with Babesia should be considered to be permanent carriers of the infection and may even relapse.
Other treatment is symptomatic and will treat the signs of disease. Dog’s with severe anaemia may also require blood transfusions.
What do ticks look like?
Check your dog thoroughly after every walk to look for ticks. They can latch on anywhere on the body, but often favour areas such as the head, ears, groin and toes.
- Oval or rounded in appearance
- Come in a range of colours from a pale cream up to a fairly deep dark grey or brown
- They can be anything from the size of a pin head up to the size of a fingernail, depending on their age and how recently they have fed.
How do you remove a tick?
We recommend that this is done using a specially designed ‘tick hook’ (pictured), these are readily available from veterinary practices, pet shops and on-line. If you are unsure how to use one, bring your pet to the practice and one of our veterinary nurses can show you how it’s done.
If you cannot get hold of a tick hook, you can use a pair of tweezers to grip the tick as close to the dog’s skin as possible, then twist it out – take care not to squeeze or pull to hard or you risk leaving some of the tick behind!
If any part of the tick is left in your pet’s skin it may cause infection, abscess or the transmission of disease. In order to avoid this
- DO NOT pull the tick off your pet, using fingers
- DO NOT burn the tick off your pet; you could seriously injure your pet.
- DO NOT use alcohol on the tick; It won’t make the tick drop off and I feel that alcohol has better uses!
- DO NOT use Vaseline; whilst it will eventually smother the tick, it will take 24-48 hours to work.
To kill the tick once it has been removed, put it in a small amount of alcohol/white spirit rather than squash it.
How do I prevent Ticks from feeding on and infecting my dog?
A tick usually needs to be attached to a dog for at least 24 hours to successfully transmit the disease.
While there are plenty of tick treatments available for dogs, many of them do not kill the tick until it has started feeding from your pet, I recommend that you buy the prescription treatments, available from your veterinary practice as spot-on applications and collars, which will repel the ticks and prevent them from latching on to your dog and potentially infecting them.
The best treatment for your dog will depend on it’s size and lifestyle as well as any other treatments he or she may already be taking, so have a chat with your veterinary nurse about tick prevention treatment for your dog.
If you have any questions about Babesiosis and it’s prevention, or you are concerned that your dog may be showing some of the clinical symptoms mentioned in the article, please contact your veterinary practice as they will be able to give you more advice.
(1) Protozoa are microscopic, one-celled organisms that can be free-living or parasitic in nature. They are able to multiply inside animals and humans, which can permit serious infections to develop from just a single organism. Protozoa that live in the blood or tissues are usually transmitted to other animals or humans by a biting insect, for example, a mosquito, sand fly or tick.
For more information on ticks including their lifecycle you can read my tick article
You can also visit the Bayer Parasite Guide