Canine Babesiosis: A Guide For Dog Owners In The Southern States

If you live in the southern United States, it's important to know the basics about canine babesiosis, a potentially deadly parasitic infection that your dog can acquire from a tick bite. Although this disease is found around the world, it is especially common in your area. Knowing the signs, how the disease is spread, and some preventative measures can help you protect your pet.

What causes canine babesiosis, and how to dogs contract the illness?

Canine babesiosis is caused by a parasite known as Babesia. There are several related species within the genus Babesia that can cause the infection; the most common are Babesia canis vogeli and Babesia gibsoni. These parasites are microscopic, single-celled protozoans; you cannot see them with the naked eye. They take up residence in your dog's red blood cells.

The most common way for a dog to contract canine babesiosis is through a tick bite. They may also become infected if they swallow a tick. Brown dog ticks, which are known for having flat, brown bodies with black spots, carry babesiosis. Deer ticks and lone star ticks do not. Rarely, dogs can contract the disease through a blood transfusion if the dog they receive the blood from is infected. If a dog is infected, they may spread the infection to other dogs through their saliva.

What are the signs and symptoms of canine babesiosis?

The symptoms of canine babesiosis don't typically appear for a few weeks after a dog is bitten by an infected tick, so owners don't always immediately associate their dog's illness with the tick bite. So, whenever you find a brown dog tick on your dog, make a mark on your calendar for that date. That way, if your dog starts showing these symptoms, you know to suspect babesiosis:

  • Extreme lack of energy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Yellowed skin and eyes
  • Weight loss
  • Discolored stool
  • Large, sore abdomen
  • Pale gums

What should you do if you suspect your dog has babesiosis?

Call your veterinarian immediately. If your vet's office is closed, contact an emergency vet at an office like Gwynedd Veterinary Hospital. Babesiosis is often deadly, and the sooner your dog receives treatment, the better his chances of survival.

How will your vet diagnose babesiosis?

In order to determine if your dog does, in fact, have babesiosis, your vet will take a sample of the blood and conduct an enzyme-based test to detect the presence of the parasite that causes the infection.

How is babesiosis treated?

The treatment prescribed will depend on the species of the protozoan that is infecting your dog. For Babesia canis, your vet will inject a drug called imidocarb dipropionate into your dog's muscle. For Babesia gibonsi, your vet may use either diminazene aceturate or a combination of atovaquone and azithromycin. These medications will help fight off the parasite.

In addition, your dog will be given supportive IV therapy to help with symptoms like dehydration and lack of nutrition due to loss of appetite. Blood transfusions may be performed as well.

What is the prognosis?

Every dog is different. Some dogs successfully clear the infection within a few days and go on to live perfectly normal, happy lives. In many cases, however, the infection does not completely clear and the dog becomes a long-term carrier of the disease. He or she may suffer low-key symptoms of flare-ups from time to time. Dogs who do not receive treatment and those whose treatment is delayed may not survive.

How can you protect your dog from babesosis?

The best thing you can do is prevent tick bites. Use a spot-on tick repellent treatment, especially if your dog spends a lot of time in wooded areas where brown dog ticks tend to live. After each outing, check your dog for ticks. If you find one, remove it immediately with tweezers, ensuring your remove all of the mouthparts and not just the body. (Grasp the tick near its base with the tweezers, and then pull straight away from the skin.)

Canine babesiosis is a scary disease, and it's not uncommon in the south where brown dog ticks are present. To learn more about this ailment, speak with your vet.