Ticks and Fleas spread diseases…

Ticks like this carry disease

I spent years learning about diseases, medicine and surgery to become a vet so I could help make animals better. Yet sadly there have been many times where I’ve either seen a dog die or be euthanised because of diseases that are preventable. For me it is heart-breaking to see a dog die like this, yet even worse are the owners crying because they did not know any better. I hope by writing this I can help prevent suffering to another dog and their owners.

Most people with a dog will probably have seen a tick or flea at some time or other. Whilst it is common to believe they may just be an annoyance to your pet, in some cases they can carry diseases which may be spread to your pet or in some cases even you.

Actually calling fleas an annoyance may not even be accurate as the itchiness that they cause can be extremely painful and lead to a dog destroying its own skin trying to get it to stop. However today I want to rather focus on ticks. In April this year I saw 23 dead dogs due to a disease carried by ticks. It is one that is relatively new to the UK; however it is very common where I studied as a vet in Slovakia.

This disease is caused by another parasite called Babesia which exists inside blood cells and is transmitted by ticks when they feed. When it enters a new animal the parasite spreads in the blood entering the red blood cells and then replicating inside it causes the cell to rupture and die. This process repeats until there are very few red blood cells left, it is treated, or the dog dies.

The symptoms vary, when the dogs I have seen suffering from this have arrived they have often been lethargic, the worse ones have been yellow with icterus and collapsed. The common symptoms are blood in the urine, lack of appetite, weight loss, pale gums and tongue, lack of energy and collapse. In fact the symptoms can be so non-specific that one of my teachers here actually once told me that if I cannot explain the symptoms by any other means then I should check for Babesia.

Checking for Babesia is generally easy with a blood test where a smear is examined under the microscope – if it is positive for Babesia then they will be seen within the red blood cells as in the dog below…

Babesia parasite inside a red blood cell
The dark puple “butterfly” in the middle circle is typically what Babesia looks like under a microscope © Chris Allen 2017

So we have the diagnosis, now for the treatment. Unfortunately this is where it gets complicated as although there is medication to kill the Babesia parasite, it can often be a battle to keep the dog alive long enough for the medication to work. Without enough red blood cells to deliver oxygen throughout the body the organs cannot work, the heart starts working faster to try and move the few good cells it has around faster, and the waste is filtered into the urine. The regeneration of red blood cells takes a few days to really start, so one potential lifesaving treatment is a blood transfusion – however this often just buys more time as these red blood cells may then also be infected and destroyed by the Babesia parasite.

The next problem then comes with the cost of treatment as well; often these dogs need hospitalisation and intensive therapy which for some is unaffordable. It really can be a gamble as to whether or not they survive at all, even if treatment is attempted, potentially leaving a big bill and a dead dog vs the happy pet parent taking their dog home.

The main question though is why it is even necessary.  Although tick products are generally not licensed against tick borne diseases, to help prevent Babesia you should help protect your dog against ticks with a vet recommended treatment, remove any ticks you find as soon as possible, and especially make sure you do this if you travel into mainland Europe.

I fully support the Pet Parasite Action campaign – such a little thing as regular prevention could help save your dog’s life even though you may not know it. You don’t go out and leave your front door unlocked to avoid theft, why would you leave your pet unprotected against diseases such as this?

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