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Babesiosis in Dogs: What is it and how is it treated?

Babesiosis is a serious infection that can be spread to dogs through infected ticks. In today's post, our Mooresville vets explain the symptoms and treatments for babesiosis and what preventative measures you can take to protect your dog from contracting babesiosis.

What is Babesiosis?

Babesiosis is primarily a tick-borne disease that invades and attacks red blood cells and causes anemia. It can affect both dogs and humans. It is caused by a single-cell parasitic organism that is part of the Babesia family. The most common Babesia organisms found in dogs in the United States include Babesia canis and Babesia gibsoni.

Our Mooresville veterinarians most often see cases of Babesiosis in pit bull terriers and greyhounds.

How do dogs become infected with babesiosis?

Most often, babesiosis is contracted after your dog has been bitten by an infected tick. There is also evidence that Babesia organisms can be spread when an infected dog with open mouth sores bites another dog.

Infected pregnant females can transmit babesiosis to their unborn puppies. 

Dogs in kennel settings with poor tick control measures may be particularly susceptible to babesiosis. 

Dogs may be inadvertently infected if they are given a tainted blood transfusion. Dogs with known cases of babesiosis should never be used as donors. 

What are the symptoms of babesiosis in dogs?

Symptoms don't always appear in dogs with chronic Babesia (asymptomatic), but it's important to note that even when symptoms are not evident the dog could spread the disease to other pets or people.

The symptoms that your dog displays will depend on the type of Babesia that has infected your pooch, however, the most common symptoms of acute Babesia include: 

  • Jaundice
  • Dark urine
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Enlarged spleen
  • Weakness
  • Fever

How are Babesia infections in dogs diagnosed?

Your veterinarian will conduct a thorough examination of your pup looking for symptoms. If babesiosis is suspected your vet will recommend diagnostic testing such as blood and urine tests to check for signs of anemia, low platelet count, low albumin, or bilirubinuria (the presence of bilirubin, a dark pigment that can be found in urine, is a sign of jaundice). 

Sometimes Babesia organisms can be seen by doing a simple blood smear, however other diagnostic tests may include fluorescent antibody staining, indirect, immunofluorescence (IFAT), ELISA tests, and PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing.

Babesia DNA testing (PCR testing) is often recommended to help your vet establish which species of Babesia organism has infected your pooch. This is especially valuable information since infections by different species require different medications in order to treat the disease effectively.

What is the treatment for babesiosis in dogs?

Babesiosis treatment in dogs can be difficult and typically consists of 3 components:

  1. Medications can be prescribed to help eliminate the parasite from your pet's bloodstream.
  2. Blood transfusions can be used to treat dogs who present with anemia.
  3. Further supportive treatments will be provided to address any complications or side effects of the condition such as oxygen therapy to treat respiratory issues, or anti-nausea medication to help prevent vomiting.

Imidocarb dipropionate injections are sometimes given to dogs infected with Babesia, depending on which strain of Babesia is causing the infection.

A combination of atovaquone (a quinone antimicrobial medication) and azithromycin (antibiotic) may be prescribed as a treatment for dogs infected with Babesia gibsoni.

What is the prognosis for dogs with babesiosis?

Unfortunately, most cases of babesiosis are fairly progressed by the time they are diagnosed. Recovery from babesiosis depends on which body systems have been affected. 

The prognosis for dogs diagnosed with babesiosis is generally guarded. Dogs that survive the initial infection may remain infected but asymptomatic for a period of time before suffering a relapse. It may be difficult to completely eradicate babesiosis from your dog's system.

Dogs with a chronic (symptom-free or very mild symptoms) infection could still spread the disease to other animals.

How can I prevent my dog from getting babesiosis?

While babesiosis is a serious illness, it can be easily prevented with good tick control. 

When an infected tick begins feeding on your pooch it takes a minimum of 48 hours for the Babesia transmission to occur so checking your pup daily for ticks and correctly removing any that are found is important. Pay particular attention to tick checking after your dog has been hiking or spent time in longer grass. 

You should also use preventative tick measures year-round to help protect your dog. Both oral medications and topical treatments are options for tick control. Talk to your vet to see what they recommend for the best protection. 

By using a combination of regular tick checks and preventative measures you can keep your dog safe from not only babesiosis but a range of tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and anaplasmosis. 

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Help protect your dog from babesiosis. To learn more about preventative tick measures, contact our Mooresville vets today.

Close up of tick on dog, Mooresville vet

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