What is it?
Babesiosis is a disease caused by infection with Babesia canis. It is spread by ticks and causes anaemia.
What causes it?
The Babesia organism is a microscopic parasite a bit like an amoeba. It can only survive and breed inside red blood cells - unfortunately, by living inside them it damages the cells. These organisms are spread by tick bites, and until recently, wasn't found in the UK. Unfortunately, in 2016 the first UK-based transmission of the disease occurred, and it is now thought to be present in our native tick population. The good news is that it can only be transmitted by the Meadow Tick (Dermacentor reticulatus) which is relatively uncommon; the common Sheep Tick (Ixodes ricinus) doesn't carry the disease.
What dogs are at risk?
Any dog may be exposed to tick bites if they go outside. The East of England is currently the highest risk area for Babesia, but as the disease will be carried by foxes, it won't remain isolated to this region indefinitely.
What are the symptoms?
The destruction of red blood cells results in anaemia, meaning the dog is unable to transport oxygen around their body successfully. The symptoms do vary a little from dog to dog, but usually involve shortness of breath, lethargy, pale gums, discoloured urine and jaundice.
How is it diagnosed?
The parasites are usually visible if we look at a blood sample using a microscope. However, confirmation of the diagnosis requires special stains and so we'll often send a sample away to an external lab for an expert pathologist to confirm.
How can it be treated or managed?
There are no licensed medications for dogs in the UK to kill the parasites, but we can order them in from other sources if needed. In addition, infected dogs are often very, very sick (some will sadly die even with treatment) so intensive care nursing in the practice is essential if they are going to survive. This may also require a blood transfusion, to replace the infected and damaged red blood cells.
Can it be prevented?
There is no vaccine against Babesia, but the need for a tick is the organism's weak link! Ticks can only transmit the disease after they're firmly secured to your dog (usually 24-48 hours after the initial bite), so an effective tick control product will minimise the risk of infection. If you find a tick on your dog, use a tick hook to remove it (or ask one of our nurses to do it!).