Babesia canis // What is it and what can we do?

It is the first time an outbreak of Babesiosis has occurred in dogs in the UK, with four dogs in Harlow, Essex, who have not traveled abroad in the past 3 months, contracting the disease.   A Tick which has been removed from one of the affected dogs has been analysed and was confirmed to be carrying the parasite, typically found in wooded areas in Europe.   It is not a common tick in England and Governmenr inspectors are examining a field used by the dogs who contracted the disease. 

What is babesiosis?

Babesiosis is a malaria-like disease which results in anaemia in dogs and is caused by single-celled babesia parasites spread by ticks. 

Will it spread through dogs in the UK?

The unfortunate answer is yes, experts have claimed it is inevitable and the implications are alarming for animal health.  “The problem in the future is that every female tick will lay a couple of thousand eggs and all those offspring will carry the disease. Even if you do all you can, you are not going to stop the spread of the disease.” – Clive Swainsbury, partner at Forest Veterinary Centre. 

How did it get into the UK?

None of the dogs who contracted the disease had been out of the country, but there has been a relaxation on the travel restrictions for pets.  Before 2012 it was compulsory for all dogs entering the UK to be checked for Ticks, however this was dropped in order to comply with the EU regulations. 

How are dogs infected? 

In order for a tick to transmit the disease, it has to be attached for 24-48 hours.  The parasite then infects the red blood cells, which not only damages the cells directly but also causes the immune system to attack the red blood cells. This causes anemia, which can be life threatening. 

What are the symptoms? 

The main symptoms include: lethargy, weakness, pale gums, jaundice, red/brown urine and fever. Diagnosis is made by examining some blood under the microscope. 

How is it treated? 

Treatment is focused on killing the parasite in the body and ensuring the immune system stops attacking more red blood cells, this may include a blood transfusion. 

How is it prevented? 

Although there is no vaccine for Babesiosis, anti-tick medicine helps stop the spread of the ticks and the transmission of the disease can be stopped by removing the tick from the dog as soon as possible.  Be vigilant and aware, especially if you are walking in wooded areas, or your dog wanders into long grass, which is typical of Ember.  The BVA recommend dog owners check their dogs after walks and if a tick is found it is removed using a tick remover, to ensure the head is not left in the body. If you spot any symptoms, contact your vet immediately.   

More information about ticks and how to remove them

Can humans get Babesiosis?

In short, yes, the human strain is also caught by bites from infected ticks, but it is rare and mainly confined to the US and Europe.  The canine strain, Babesia canis, is not thought to be a risk to human health. 

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