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Babesiosis in dogs – also known as canine malaria – is caused by blood parasites that are transmitted by ticks. If left untreated, this disease is usually fatal for the dog. Here you will find important information on the subject.

What are babesias?

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Babesia are small, unicellular parasites. They belong to the piroplasma family, which is why the disease is also known as piroplasmosis. Various types are distinguished, but not all of them occur in Germany. The most important species in dogs are Babesia canis and Babesia gibsoni.

Babesia reproduce in the red blood cells (erythrocytes) of mammals, e.g. B. dogs and thereby destroy them. The parasites use meadow ticks as carriers (vectors) to get from mammal to mammal.

How does my dog ​​get babesiosis?

In the past, piroplasmosis did not occur in dogs in Germany itself. It was pure travel sickness, i.e. a disease that the dog got because it was e.g. B. was unprotected in the appropriate areas on vacation trips. An increased import of dogs from abroad (mainly through animal protection projects) and increasing travel within Europe have brought the Babesia to Germany in large numbers. In addition, climate change favors the growth of tick populations and enables tick species to become native that previously did not exist or hardly existed in Germany. This also includes the meadow tick (Dermacentor reticulatus), which transmits babesiosis to dogs.

The ticks prefer rather moist biotopes such as meadows, forest edges or the vicinity of water bodies. They are particularly strong in spring (March/April) and autumn. During this time, the dog can easily catch ticks when roaming through forests and meadows. Short park meadows or very shady, dense forests appear to be less occupied by meadow ticks.

After an infected tick has established itself, it takes about 12-48 hours before it transmits babesiosis to the dog. This is due to the fact that the reproductive forms of babesia only form in the tick from the beginning of the act of sucking. There are now indications that it can also go faster if a tick changes host during the act of sucking.

In addition to babesiosis in dogs, there are other tick-borne diseases that can be dangerous for dogs, e.g. B. Lyme disease, Ehrlichiosis or Anaplasmosis. An overview of tick diseases can be found here.

Babesiosis dog: symptoms

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Babesiosis symptoms can vary depending on the species. What they have in common is the destruction of the red blood cells with the subsequent lack of oxygen transport in the body. In the case of a long-term illness, consequential damage occurs in various organs, e.g. B. kidney or liver.

Usually 1-3 weeks after the infection, the dogs suddenly get a high fever, are weak and listless, and stop eating. The mucous membranes in the mouth and eyes become pale and the urine turns reddish or brownish.

Over time, the mucous membranes can turn yellowish: the destruction of the red blood cells releases blood pigment (hemoglobin), which is broken down via a yellow intermediate stage (bilirubin).

In severe cases of canine babesiosis, red blood cell lysis occurs to such an extent that the dogs go into shock and other complications can occur, e.g. B. Kidney failure. In the latter case, the dogs urinate little or no longer, but sometimes suddenly a lot and the urine is colored brown by the blood pigment.

If fluid has collected in the lungs (pulmonary edema), the dogs show increased breathing, coughing and possibly also bloody nasal discharge. If the nervous system is affected, epileptic seizures, paralysis and movement disorders can also occur.

If the dog has babesiosis, these symptoms can occur, but not all of them have to. In addition to the Babesia species, factors such as the age of the dog, the state of the immune system, previous illnesses, etc. are also important: If it is an adult, healthy dog, it will usually suffer less from the parasites than particularly young or old animals, which may already have pre-existing conditions. The latter can die very quickly from a Babesia infection.

Dogs with chronic babesiosis are often only noticeable because of changes in their blood or they repeatedly have bouts of fever, are weak and emaciated.

Attention: If left untreated, babesiosis in dogs usually leads to death!

Babesiosis in dogs: treatment

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If your veterinarian suspects babesiosis when examining your dog because of the symptoms and e.g. B. a reported stay abroad, he will carry out a blood test in addition to the physical examination. This can be used to detect the blood parasites. There are various methods of detection (microscopic, PCR, antibody detection), which vary in complexity and significance. The veterinarian will select the appropriate method depending on the situation. The blood sample sometimes has to be sent to an external laboratory, since not all techniques are possible on site in the practice.

Babesiosis in dogs can be treated with a drug that is injected into the dog. It is important that it is carried out as soon as possible in order to prevent negative consequences of babesiosis in dogs. Unfortunately, Babesia treatment does not always kill all parasites. If the animal has already lost a large number of red blood cells, a blood transfusion may be necessary. Of course, other complications are also treated in each case.

Can I prevent babesiosis in my dog?

There is a vaccination against babesiosis in dogs that protects against at least some babesia species. While the protection isn’t absolute, it does provide some extra security and mitigate symptoms if the dog does get infected. So far (as of 2021), vaccination is particularly useful if the dog is to travel to a risk area. However, as meadow ticks and with them babesiosis continue to spread in Germany, this may change in the future.

Since the parasite uses ticks as a carrier, good tick prophylaxis also protects against babesiosis. There are various preparations in spot-on, collar or tablet form that kill ticks and also keep them away (repellent). Ask your vet!

After the walk, you should check the dog for ticks and collect them, especially during the spring and fall peaks. But be careful: Meadow ticks are still active at temperatures around 5°C and survive night frosts!

And: it is better not to give your darling z. B. to the Mediterranean Sea. Not only can Babesia in dogs be an unsightly “souvenir”, other diseases are also native there. If you plan to travel with your dog to a certain area, consult your veterinarian in good time beforehand to find out what preventive measures you can take to avoid travel sickness.

Canine malaria in humans?

Canine babesiosis is not currently known to be contagious to humans.

Babesiosis in dogs: Conclusion

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Babesiosis in dogs is a parasitic disease that is usually fatal if left untreated. In addition to initially minor symptoms, it can also lead to very severe courses. The best prophylaxis is treatment against ticks and avoiding risky travel destinations. If you come back from a risk area, you can have a blood test done by the vet to rule out an infection as far as possible.