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Babesiosis in Dogs

What Is Babesiosis in Dogs?

Babesiosis stems from an infection caused by Babesia, a protozoal parasite that affects domestic dogs and cats worldwide. In the Southern United States, most instances of babesiosis in dogs are recorded. While it’s uncommon in healthy, spleen-intact adult dogs, babesiosis is recognized as an emerging infection in canines.

The parasite targets red blood cells and spreads through tick bites or exposure to infected dog blood. Even asymptomatic dogs with babesiosis can transmit the infection to other dogs, particularly in kennels. Veterinarians often diagnose babesiosis incidentally during examinations prompted by sudden illness in dogs. Given its tick-borne nature, dogs with babesiosis often harbor other tick-borne infections such as ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and Lyme disease, which can exacerbate the condition by interacting with each other.

The primary mode of Babesia transmission in dogs is through tick bites. Various tick species including the Ornate dog tick, the Brown dog tick, and the American dog tick have been linked to transmitting Babesia to dogs. The tick must bite, attach, and feed on the dog’s blood for 2 to 3 days to transmit the infection.

Various species of Babesia, including Babesia canis (subspecies vogeli, canis, rossi), Babesia gibsoni (predominant in the US), Babesia vulpes, and Babesia conradae, have been identified as causing infections in dogs. Babesia gibsoni, prevalent in the US, is particularly notable for its transmission through infected blood from dog fights and bites, as well as through blood transfusions. It can also be transmitted from an infected mother dog to her puppies (transplacental transmission).

The incubation period, which is the time from a tick bite to the onset of symptoms, typically averages about two weeks, although symptoms may initially be mild. In some cases, diagnosis may not occur for months or even years.

Babesia organisms are generally categorized as either large or small. Babesia canis, a large blood parasite that infects dogs, is distributed globally. Additionally, there is a genetically distinct small blood parasite capable of infecting dogs.

Babesia gibsoni, found worldwide and emerging as a concern in the US, predominantly affects Pit Bull Terriers and is transmitted through bite wounds and from mother to unborn puppies. It is the most common Babesia species in North America. Certain breeds, such as Greyhounds and members of the Terrier group, are at an increased risk of infection. Babesiosis poses a significant threat to racing Greyhounds and Pit Bull Terriers, with young dogs being particularly susceptible to severe infection.

Symptoms

The symptoms of Babesiosis in dogs can range from mild, transient illness to severe, rapidly fatal disease. Manifestations can vary significantly depending on the specific area of the body affected. Common clinical signs include:

  • Fatigue, lethargy, depression
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pale gums and other mucous membranes
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes or spleen
  • Dark-colored urine, often dark red or orange
  • Yellow or orange skin, indicating jaundice
  • Enlarged or distended abdomen
  • Weight loss
  • Discolored stool
  • Neurological symptoms, such as:
    • Lack of coordination and/or unsteady gait
    • Seizures
    • Neck discomfort

Ticks are commonly found around a dog’s neck, head, ears, and in the folds beneath the legs. They are typically small and feel like hard bumps on the dog’s skin, usually dark brown or black in color. Depending on their life stage, ticks may have six legs (larvae) or eight legs (nymphs and adults). Engorged ticks, which have been feeding on the dog’s blood for a while, may appear light brown or gray. Even dogs receiving monthly flea and tick preventatives can still acquire ticks. Regularly check your dog for ticks, especially if you live in tick-prone areas or after outdoor activities in wooded regions and parks where other dogs frequent.

Causes

Babesiosis in dogs occurs when blood-borne parasites, such as Babesia, enter the bloodstream after a tick bite. For transmission to occur, a tick typically needs to feed on a dog for 2-3 days. Once in the bloodstream, Babesia multiplies within red blood cells, leading to anemia. The breakdown of infected red blood cells releases hemoglobin into the body, which can cause jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes) and exacerbate anemia as the body struggles to produce enough new red blood cells to replace those destroyed.

Dogs that spend significant time outdoors, especially in wooded areas, face an elevated risk of tick bites and subsequent Babesia infection.

Direct transmission of Babesia between dogs can occur under specific circumstances, including:

  • An infected dog with oral lesions or abrasions bites another dog. This mode of transmission is particularly pertinent for Babesia gibsoni, which primarily affects Pit Bull Terriers.
  • Transmission from an infected mother dog to her unborn puppies while in the uterus.
  • Unintentional infection through a contaminated blood transfusion from another dog.
  • Instances where dogs are housed in kennels with inadequate tick control measures.

Diagnosis

Your veterinarian will gather a comprehensive history of symptoms, including any potential exposure to tick bites or involvement in dog fights. A thorough physical examination will be conducted, encompassing:

  • Complete blood count
  • Blood biochemical profile
  • Urinalysis
  • Electrolyte panel

Typically, Babesiosis manifests with low blood protein levels, reduced blood platelet count, and anemia. Babesiosis symptoms can resemble those of other diseases that induce fever, anemia, red blood cell destruction, jaundice, or red urine. To confirm the diagnosis, one or more of the following laboratory tests should be performed:

  • Wright’s stain: This staining method is applied to a blood sample and examined under a microscope by your veterinarian. It aids in distinguishing different blood cells, facilitating the detection of blood infections and protozoa.
  • Immunofluorescent antibody (IFA) tests: These tests identify antibodies in the blood serum that react with the Babesia organism. However, they may not reliably differentiate between different Babesia species and subspecies.
  • Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA): This blood test relies on detecting an antibody response in the infected dog, which may take around 10 days to develop.
  • Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests: These tests detect Babesia DNA in biological samples, typically whole blood in dogs. PCR tests offer the advantage of being able to detect all four species of Babesia and are more sensitive than microscopy-based methods.

Treatment

The FDA-approved treatment for babesiosis in dogs is imidocarb dipropionate, an antiprotozoal medication commonly used for combating large Babesia species. This treatment is administered via injection by a qualified veterinarian. In certain cases, the veterinarian may also prescribe antibiotics such as azithromycin and/or clindamycin to complement the treatment regimen.

The specific treatment protocol depends on the identified Babesia species and the severity of the disease. Dogs with more severe symptoms may necessitate additional interventions, including anti-inflammatory or steroid medications, hospitalization, intravenous fluids, blood transfusions, oxygen therapy, anti-nausea medications, and other supportive measures. Blood transfusions, particularly, can be critical for severely anemic animals and are frequently performed in affected dogs.

Living and Management

In cases where imidocarb injection is utilized, a single dose typically proves effective in eliminating Babesia canis (large organism), whereas two injections administered two weeks apart are necessary for the smaller Babesia species. However, it’s important to note that the injection procedure can induce discomfort, potentially causing muscle tremors, drooling, elevated heart rate, shivering, fever, facial swelling, tearing of the eyes, and restlessness.

Your veterinarian will closely monitor your dog’s recovery progress and will arrange regular follow-up appointments to conduct repeat blood work and urine testing. Additionally, it’s recommended to perform two to three consecutive negative PCR tests starting two months post-treatment to ensure the effectiveness of your dog’s treatment and the absence of lingering infection.

Most cases of babesiosis are diagnosed in advanced stages of the disease, thereby rendering the prognosis guarded, contingent upon the affected body systems at the time of diagnosis.

It’s essential for pet owners to understand that dogs that have survived babesiosis often retain subclinical infections and may experience disease relapses in the future. These persistently infected dogs can serve as reservoirs for further disease transmission within their respective areas. Consequently, dogs that have recuperated from babesiosis should never be used as blood transfusion donors, as recipients may risk developing the disease.

Prevention

Preventing exposure to ticks is paramount in safeguarding your dog against Babesiosis. Utilizing suitable tick-control products and promptly removing any ticks can significantly reduce the risk of parasite exposure. Prevention efforts also entail managing dog-to-dog transmission through blood, such as instances involving dog bites, transmission from mother dogs to puppies, and blood transfusions.

Regular tick prevention measures should be adopted for dogs, which may involve using tick collars, applying topical medications to the skin, or administering chewable pills. Various products designed to prevent ticks, such as Revolution, Bravecto, and NexGard, as well as tick collars like Preventic and Seresto, can be employed. It’s essential to adhere to your veterinarian’s recommendations when selecting and using these products.

Maintaining trimmed grass and brush in your yard is advisable. In areas where ticks pose a significant threat, treating the yard and kennel areas for ticks can further enhance prevention efforts.

Babesiosis in Dogs FAQs

What are the signs of babesiosis in dogs?

Typical symptoms include decreased energy, loss of appetite, and fever.

Is canine babesiosis deadly?

Untreated babesiosis can lead to fatality due to severe anemia and/or liver complications.

Can babesiosis trigger seizures in dogs?

Cerebral babesiosis pertains to the infection of the brain by Babesia organisms, resulting in neurological manifestations. While rare in dogs, this form of babesiosis can induce seizures and other neurological symptoms that may affect your dog’s consciousness or mental state.

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