What is Babesiosis in Dogs?
Babesiosis stems from a protozoan parasite called Babesia, prevalent globally in household pets like cats and dogs. In the Southern regions of North America, it's primarily observed in canines. Although not common in healthy adult dogs with intact spleens, it's a growing concern for canines.
Babesia targets the body's red blood cells. The primary transmission routes are tick bites or coming in contact with the blood of an infected dog. Even asymptomatic dogs with babesiosis can become carriers, often in places like kennels.
Often, dog owners become aware of the condition only after their pet falls ill suddenly, leading them to consult a veterinarian. Being tick-borne, babesiosis often accompanies other infections of the same nature, such as Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, or Rocky Mountain spotted fever. These co-infections can compound the severity.
Ticks are the main carriers of Babesia to dogs. Notable among these are the Ornate dog tick, the Brown dog tick, and the American dog tick. A tick typically needs a feeding period of 2 to 3 days to transmit the parasite.
Multiple strains of Babesia are known to affect dogs, with notable ones being Babesia canis (with subspecies like vogeli, canis, rossi), Babesia gibsoni (predominantly in the US), Babesia vulpes, and Babesia conradae. Babesia gibsoni can spread among dogs through direct blood contact, like during dog fights, or even from an infected mother to her unborn puppy.
Generally, symptoms manifest around two weeks post-infection, but some can be quite subtle. As a result, diagnosis can sometimes take months or even years.
The Babesia parasites are typically categorized based on their size:
- Babesia canis: A large parasite that infects dogs and has a global footprint.
- There's also a unique smaller variant that infects dogs.
Babesia gibsoni has a global presence and is particularly increasing in the US. It predominantly affects breeds like Pit Bull Terriers and can transmit through bites or from a pregnant dog to its fetus. Notably, this strain is the most observed in North America.
Certain breeds, including Greyhounds and various Terriers, have a heightened susceptibility. Babesiosis poses a significant concern, especially for Greyhounds and Pit Bull Terriers used in racing. Puppies and young dogs usually exhibit more severe symptoms.
Symptoms of Babesiosis in Dogs
The manifestations of this infection range from a fleeting mild discomfort to a critical condition that can be fatal in a short span. The symptoms can differ significantly based on the specific region of the body affected. Frequently observed symptoms include:
- Diminished vitality, sluggishness, or moodiness
- Reduced appetite
- Pale mucous membranes, including the gums
- Elevated body temperature
- Swelling of lymph nodes or spleen
- Darkly tinted urine, often deep red or amber
- Yellowing of the skin or jaundice
- Bloating or distended abdomen
- Decrease in body weight
- Unusual stool color
- Neurological symptoms such as:
- Unsteadiness or a shaky walk
- Discomfort in the neck region
Ticks usually latch onto areas around a dog's head, neck, ears or folds beneath the legs.
Ticks feel like small, rigid bumps on the dog's skin and generally exhibit a dark hue, either brown or black. Depending on their growth stage, they might possess either six legs (as larvae) or eight (during nymph and adult stages). If they've been feeding on the dog's blood for an extended period, their appearance may turn light brown or grayish due to engorgement. It's essential to remember that even if a dog is on a routine flea and tick regimen, it can still be at risk. Regular checks are advisable, especially if residing in tick-heavy regions or after outdoor activities in forests or dog parks.
Causes of Babesiosis in Dogs
A tick latches onto a dog can introduce parasites like Babesia into the canine's bloodstream. The tick must feast for 2-3 days for a dog to become infected with Babesia. This parasite proliferates within the red blood cells, which can induce anemia. As these infected cells break down, they release hemoglobin into the system. This process can manifest as jaundice, marked by a yellowish tint to the skin and the whites of the eyes, and anemia occurs if the body struggles to generate new red blood cells.
Canines that frequently roam outdoors, particularly in forested zones, face heightened risks of tick exposure and subsequent parasite infections.
Furthermore, there have been instances of Babesia being transferred directly between dogs under specific conditions, such as:
- A bite from an infected dog with open sores or scratches is especially notable in Babesia gibsoni's case, a strain that predominantly affects Pit Bull Terriers.
- Transmission from an infected mother to her unborn puppy in the womb.
- Accidental infection during a blood transfusion from a contaminated dog donor.
- When canines are kept in kennel environments lacking effective tick management.
Diagnoses of Babesiosis in Dogs
Your vet will gather a comprehensive history of symptoms, pinpointing possible incidents of tick bites or encounters with aggressive dogs. A thorough physical assessment will be performed, encompassing:
- A full blood count
- A blood chemistry profile
- Electrolyte measurements
It's common to observe reduced blood protein levels, diminished blood platelet counts, and signs of anemia.
Babesiosis can be mistaken for conditions that manifest fever, anemia, red blood cell destruction, jaundice, or reddish urine. To accurately diagnose the ailment, one or multiple of these lab tests should be conducted:
- Wright's stain is applied to a canine blood sample inspected microscopically. This aids the vet in identifying blood cells, making any bloodstream infection evident as the protozoa can be spotted on the blood slide.
- Immunofluorescent antibody (IFA) evaluations detect antibodies in the blood serum reacting with the Babesia pathogen. The serum constitutes the leftover part of the blood after cell removal through rapid centrifugation. IFA tests have a limitation in that they often can't differentiate between various Babesia species and subspecies.
- Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) represents another diagnostic blood procedure. A positive result depends on the dog's antibody response to the infection, which might take up to 10 days to manifest.
- Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests identify Babesia DNA within a biological specimen, typically the dog's whole blood. PCR testing stands out as it can spot all four Babesia types. Its sensitivity is enhanced as it bypasses microscopic analysis.
Treatment of Babesiosis in Dogs
The recognized treatment for babesiosis, endorsed by the FDA, is imidocarb dipropionate. This antiprotozoal medication is typically utilized for addressing large Babesia species and is administered as an injection by a vet.
The precise therapeutic approach hinges on the particular Babesia species diagnosed and the disease's intensity. Dogs with a more acute condition may necessitate treatments such as anti-inflammatory or steroid drugs, in-patient care, intravenous hydration, blood transfusion, oxygen support, medications to curb nausea, and additional palliative measures. Blood transfusions can be crucial for extremely anemic pets, and this procedure is regularly executed in canines.
Recovery of Babesiosis in Dogs
Using an imidocarb injection, a single dose often clears Babesia canis (the larger variant). However, two separate injections two weeks apart are recommended for the tinier Babesia species. Administering the injection might be uncomfortable for the dog. It could lead to side effects like muscle spasms, excessive salivation, an increased heart rate, chills, fever, swelling of the face, watery eyes, and agitation.
Post-treatment, your vet will be keen to track your dog's recovery, scheduling routine check-ups to re-evaluate blood and urine samples. It's essential to conduct two to three successive negative PCR tests, starting a couple of months post-treatment, to ensure the therapy was effective and no remnants of the infection linger.
Babesiosis is often only diagnosed once the disease has significantly advanced. The outlook for dogs identified with babesiosis is uncertain, largely based on which bodily systems are impacted at the diagnosis stage.
Dog owners should recognize that canines who've overcome babesiosis may still retain a low-level infection, potentially leading to a disease resurgence. Such dogs can inadvertently propagate the disease within their environment. It's crucial to remember that dogs that have previously battled babesiosis shouldn't be chosen for blood donations, as the recipient might contract the ailment.
Prevention of Babesiosis in Dogs
Guarding your dog against tick encounters using suitable tick-prevention products and swiftly removing ticks is pivotal in avoiding this parasite's introduction. Moreover, thwarting the transmission of this ailment from one dog to another, whether via blood due to bites, from mother to offspring, or during blood transfusions, is central to prevention.
Regularly administer tick-preventive measures to your dog, whether through a collar, a skin-applied solution, or an oral chewable/tablet. Tick deterrents like Revolution, Bravecto, and NexGard, or tick collars such as Preventic and Seresto, are beneficial options. Always adhere to your vet's guidelines when employing these solutions.
Maintaining your yard by trimming grass and clearing brush is essential. If ticks are rampant in your vicinity, consider treating your yard and any kennel spaces to deter them.