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Babesiosis in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

The contagious tick-borne disease babesiosis can infect dogs, other animals and humans, impacting their organs and causing illness. In this post, our Greensboro vets explain babesiosis in dogs, including symptoms, treatment, prognosis and prevention.

What is babesiosis in dogs?

Babesiosis is a tick-borne disease caused by several Babesia organisms that invade and attack a dog’s red blood cells. They can also affect mammals and humans. In North American dogs, Babesia canis and Babesia gibsoni are the most common Babesia organisms.

How can a dog become infected with or contract babesiosis?

In most cases, a tick infected with Babesia organisms bites a dog, infecting him or her. However, some studies indicate that dogs can also become infected through open mouth sores and subsequently pass this infection to other dogs by biting them. Pregnant mothers may transmit babesiosis to their puppies.

While most cases of babesiosis infection are caused by tick bites, in pit bull terriers a Babesia gibsoni infection is most often the result of bites from dog to dog or maternal transmission.

Dogs can also contract the infection via blood transfusion if the blood is tainted.

What are symptoms of babesiosis?

It’s possible for dogs with chronic babesiosis infections to be asymptomatic. However, even if you don’t notice symptoms, your pooch can spread the disease to other animals - and people.

If symptoms appear, they will depend on the type of Babesia your pooch is infected with. Common symptoms of babesiosis can include:

  • Orange or dark red urine
  • Fever
  • Jaundice
  • Weakness

How is babesiosis diagnosed?

Your vet will perform a full physical examination to look for signs such as an enlarged spleen, swollen lymph nodes and pale mucous membranes.

If he or she suspects babesiosis is causing your dog’s illness, diagnostic testing including blood and urine tests may be done to reveal whether your dog has anemia, a low platelet count, low albumin, or bilirubinuria.

A simple blood smear can often help your vet to detect Babesia organisms. Other diagnostic tests, such as fluorescent antibody staining, indirect, immunofluorescence (IFAT), ELISA tests and PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing can also also be completed.

Babesia DNA testing (PCR testing) will often be recommended to help find out which type of Babesia organism has infected your dog. This information is especially valuable as infections from different species will need different medications to treat the condition.

How is babesiosis in dogs treated?

Our vets typically take a three-pronged approach to treating babesiosis in dogs. This includes:

  • Blood transfusions to treat anemia
  • Prescribing antiprotozoal medications to help kill the parasite
  • Providing supportive care to treat complications or side effects of the infection, such as oxygen therapy to treat respiratory issues and anti-nausea medication to help prevent vomiting.

Occasionally, imidocarb dipropionate injections are prescribed (depending on the type of babesiosis) to help fight the infection. For dogs with Babesia gibsoni, a combination of atovaquone (a quinone antimicrobial medication) and azithromycin (antibiotic) may also be prescribed.

What is the prognosis for dogs diagnosed with babesiosis?

Usually, the disease has progressed by the time most dogs are diagnosed. How well your dog will recover will depend on which organs are impacted, and the side effects caused by the infection. Prognosis is typically guarded.

Dogs that survive a first round of Babesia infection may remain asymptomatic. They retain the infection for a relatively long time and can then suffer a relapse. In chronic cases (which are symptom-free or low symptom), the disease can still spread to other animals.

How can I prevent my dog from getting babesiosis?

Since treatment can be expensive and recovery not certain, prevention of babesiosis is key. To help prevent your dog from contracting the infection, ensure he or she is on tick prevention medication year-round - an effective way to prevent numerous tick-borne diseases.

Check your pup daily for ticks, and correctly remove any parasites you find. It takes at least 48 hours for Babesia to be transmitted once the tick starts to feed on your pet.

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.

Is your dog showing signs of babesiosis? Contact our Greensboro vets right away to schedule an appointment for testing. Our vets are experienced in diagnosing a number of conditions and illnesses.

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