What Is Babesia Canis And Is My Dog At Risk?

You may have heard of the term Babesia and it is a type of disease that affects dogs. It is actually a parasite – a type named a protozoa, and it also has a species that can make humans ill. The type of Babesia that interests vets is Babesia Canis – this is a dog version and was traditionally seen in Europe, but has now surfaced in the UK. In this Pets4Homes article, we will look at what Babesia is and its symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

So Babesia is a parasite – how does it get spread?

It is a protozoa parasite – and the main thing is it does is destroys red blood cells in the dog, causing the poor unfortunate animal to have anaemia. The disease can strike dogs of any age, but vets have mainly seen younger dogs affected. Recent years have seen an increase in the disease, and tests are also being carried out into whether wildlife can be carriers, particularly deer and foxes.

The thing they will be carrying is infected ticks. These are the way Babesia is spread and it has been found that the main culprit of tick, is the marsh tick.

The ticks spread the disease by feeding on the dog for up to a week – they are simply a carrier and will not be affected by the disease themselves, because they usually drop from the dog within a week, when the protozoa start causing the disease. The protozoa cause the disease inside the bloodstream by attacking the red blood cells and also multiplying fairly rapidly.

If your dog is affected by Babesia, they will usually show symptoms in about 10 days onwards. If they have new ticks on them, they can actually infect the ticks – so carrying on the life-cycle!

So, what are the signs of Babesia?

Anaemia is definitely the biggest sign of Babesia, and this severity will depend on several factors, including how old the dog is, and whether it has any immune system issues. The symptoms themselves may not even show, but generally, the anaemia will cause:

  • Very pale gums
  • A dog that is generally unhappy
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Lethargy
  • Not wanting to eat
  • And even blood in the urine, making it red.

When the animal goes into the vet, they will give the dog a full examination and may find the dog has a higher temperature than normal, and their heart rate may also be very rapid.

The anaemia may be further worsened by the inability of the dog’s bone marrow in making more red blood cells, to replace the ones that have been attacked. Scientists think the blood cells themselves are made to rupture by the disease, completely destroying them. They have also found that even though a dog may have relatively few of the parasites causing the problem, the signs and symptoms can still be just as severe as if they had many more in the bloodstream.


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So how does a vet know it’s Babesia?

Diagnosis for this disease relies on blood tests. Blood is taken and a sample is looked at under a microscope on a slide. Other tests are also carried out on the blood. Anaemia will show the red blood cells as a low count, possibly from being reduced by the disease. This is not enough to link the disease with the anaemia, as there are many types of anaemia and many causes. On occasions the protozoa can be seen on the blood smear slide, so giving a positive result.

Other tests that can be tried to find the cause of the anaemia and link it to Babesia are:

  • A blood test to look for the antibody against the protozoa – but this will only say if the dog has met the parasite before, and is not a positive test as to if it is present at the time.
  • A more accurate way of testing is being developed – looking for the DNA of Babesia.

In both cases, if the dog has not been abroad and has only been UK-based, the suspicion of Babesia is much higher – especially if the symptoms are similar.

Okay so it seems this parasite can cause problems, what can we do?

If the dog has picked up Babesia, they can be affected with it for the rest of their life, as at present there is no complete cure for it. If the dog picks up an immune problem or infection, it may make the symptoms flare up again, and the disease can reappear.

Treatment would be medication to kill the parasites in the blood with an anti-protozoal injection. At present, there is only one type of injection, but it is not licensed in dogs, only in cattle. The injection is very safe though in our canine friends, and they would be given two injections, a fortnight apart.

If the disease is very severe, the dog may need further support to help them recover – and on average up to 90% of dogs will recover (but not be fully cured as said above). If a dog has extra complications, then sadly the disease may prove too much for them and become fatal.

Can anything else be done?

This disease can be prevented – by regular tick treatment, especially if the dog is going abroad at any time! The disease itself is also known to take three days to enter the bloodstream properly, so if you do see a tick on your dog (and it’s not on tick prevention), then removing it within three days will help reduce the risk of any Babesia becoming a problem.

As with any disease or any concerns you have for your pet, your vet should be the first port of call for an examination and further advice. In the case of this disease, regular tick preventative treatment is important, and the best products are obtained at a veterinary practice – simply because they are prescription strength. Your vet will also be able to advise on tick treatments for the pet passport scheme.

Babesia is a disease now found in the UK, but with careful prevention and knowledge, the risk to your own dog should be minimised.


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