Babesiosis is a disease which is transmitted by ticks. It has been present on mainland Europe for many years but recently there have been a few cases around the Harlow area of Essex in dogs which have never travelled abroad. This means that a population of ticks infected with the disease have established themselves in England for the first time.
The strain of Babesia (Babesia canis) which these ticks are carrying is only a problem to dogs and is transmitted by the tick Dermacentor reticulatus. Infection with the parasite is potentially fatal and complicated by the fact that the symptoms shown can be shown with many other diseases. These include:
- pale or yellow (jaundiced) gums
- loss of appetite
- red urine
Often the tick which transmitted the disease will have fallen off the dog by the time these signs develop so it can be difficult to know what caused the problem. The Babesia parasite infects red blood cells and can sometimes be seen by the vet under the microscope, but as not all cells will be infected, it can be easy to miss.
The disease can be treated with a blood transfusion if there is severe anaemia and a specific drug which will kill the parasite. This drug is not widely available in small animal practice so there may be a delay between diagnosis and treatment with this.
The good news is that babesiosis can be prevented. A tick must feed on the dog for at least 3 days before it transmits the parasite into the blood stream. Currently this disease has only been seen in dogs around Harlow, and those which have travelled abroad but there are other tick-borne diseases in this country so vigilance is necessary.
There are various tick treatments and repellents available. As with all parasite treatments, please speak to your vet regarding the best products available. Products which repel as well as killing ticks are best to ensure full protection. Please note that many of these are toxic to cats so take great care if you have cats which are likely to be in contact with a treated dog. Checking your dog daily and removing any ticks that you see is also very important.