Canine babesiosis is a protozoan disease that is spread by ticks. It is of the genus Babesia of protozoa, which includes one-celled organisms that are parasites of red blood cells. Canine babesiosis occurs worldwide, mostly in regions where ticks are prevalent. Young pets tend to become infected most often, and with worse symptoms.
Signs & Symptoms of Canine Babesiosis
- Pale tongue, gums, and nose due to severe deficiency of red blood cells
- Fever greater than 105.8℉
- Loss of appetite
- Red or orange urine
- Enlarged lymph nodes
This disease is sometimes associated with other tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease, canine ehrlichiosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, among others. This can make symptoms worse and complicate diagnosis.
Causes of Canine Babesiosis
Babesia is a genus of protozoa that is spread by tick bites. The two species of ticks that are believed to spread this disease in dogs are Rhipicephalus sanguineus, or the Brown Dog Tick, and Dermacentor variabilis, or the American Dog Tick.
The tick bites an infected animal and ingests the Babesia protozoa in the blood meal. It then releases from that animal and digests the blood meal, which is regurgitated into its next host as an anticoagulant. The protozoa will then attach and penetrate red blood cells, which your dog’s immune system will target and destroy.
Mothers can spread this disease to their unborn puppies, so infected females should not be bred. There is some evidence that babesiosis can be spread through dogs biting other mammals.
Diagnosis of Canine Babesiosis
Diagnosis begins with a complete history and a physical exam. Your veterinarian will most likely do the following:
- History - Your veterinarian will likely inquire about recent tick exposure and bite history.
- CBC/Chemistry Panel - These blood tests will evaluate various internal organ functions, including the heart, liver, kidneys, pancreas, metabolism, and electrolyte balance. The CBC is a measure of the amount and different kinds of red and white blood cells that are present in your dog’s body.
- Blood Smear - This technique is used to examine the individual cells in your dog’s blood. Your veterinarian will use a drop of blood from your dog’s leg or neck, and spread it thin on a slide. They will then examine the slide under a microscope in order to see the Babesia parasite.
- Immunofluorescence - This is a technique used to illuminate a pathogen or antibodies to a pathogen in a tissue or culture using a fluorescent dye. In this case, your veterinarian will make a tissue or cell smear and expose it to a specific antibody for babesiosis. The dye will attach to any Babesia antibody displayed in the sample and show under a microscope as a bright green spot on the slide.
Treatment for Canine Babesiosis
Your veterinarian will likely treat this disease depending on which Babesia species your dog has. The most common species, B. canis, is usually treated with an antiprotozoal drug. The less common species, B. gibsoni, is more difficult to treat and usually requires a combination of drugs. Other antimicrobial drugs may also be used to treat this condition.
Dogs infected with this disease are often lifetime carrier's able to infect ticks even after symptoms have gone away. Symptoms may recur if your dog becomes stressed and its immune system allows the protozoa to get out of control again.
Prevention of Canine Babesiosis
For unknown reasons, Greyhounds and Pit Bulls are the dog breeds most susceptible to this disease. Any blood donor dog should be tested for babesiosis before transferring their blood into another dog.
Babesiosis may be prevented by reducing the number of ticks that bite your dog. This can be achieved by:
- Regular use of a flea preventive that protect against ticks as well
- Avoid environments frequented by ticks (especially between May and August, though ticks can be active in any temperature above 32℉) and check your dog for ticks after they go outside
Proper removal of ticks
Removing ticks within 24 hours of exposure can greatly reduce the chance of your dog getting Lyme Disease. Ticks do, however, carry many other pathogens, and frequent checks and proper removal are crucial to the prevention of disease. If the ticks stay on your dog long enough to get a full blood meal, they will often release themselves and fall off your dog unnoticed.
Use fine point tweezers to remove the tick at the mouthparts, or as close to the skin as possible. Tricks like using petroleum jelly, alcohol, or a match, will not cause the tick to back out, and may even cause it to regurgitate more bacteria into your dog. Make sure you pull the mouthparts out slowly and steadily. If you do not remove the head of the tick, he can continue to regurgitate fluid into your dog, potentially transmitting the bacteria causing Lyme disease. Disinfect the wound on your dog. A triple antibiotic ointment may help the wound heal faster. After removal, be sure you kill the tick by putting it in a jar of alcohol (this may also help with identification later, if need be). Flushing the tick down the toilet will not kill it. Because you likely removed it before it had a full meal, the tick will usually look for another host to feed on, and if it’s a carrier, it can transmit the bacteria to others.