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What's all this about tick-borne diseases in the news?

You may recently have read the scary headlines in the newspapers about “deadly new ticks” and “fatal dog diseases” new to the UK - especially if you live in the South East, where local media have picked it up and run with it. But what’s really going on? Is there really anything to worry about, or is it another case of a media scare story that’s going to blow over in a few weeks? Let’s have a look at the evidence, and at what’s really going on here...

Informative image: red blood cells Mayne Vets Colchester

What’s all the fuss about?

A disease called babesiosis, that has been diagnosed in 4 dogs in Essex. One of them has since died of the infection.

What’s that?

Think of it as a bit like malaria for dogs. It’s caused by a single-celled parasite called Babesia canis that gets inside the dog’s red blood cells, damaging them. Unfortunately, the dog’s immune system then gets in on the act, and in trying to kill the Babesia parasites, starts destroying red blood cells willy nilly.

Is that like anaemia?

Yes, exactly - the dog doesn’t have enough red blood cells left to carry oxygen.

So what are the symptoms?

They vary a bit from dog to dog, but usually include shortness of breath, tiredness, pale gums, discoloured urine (often sort of coffee-coloured) and sometimes jaundice.

Jaundice? Does it attack the liver too then?

It can, but the jaundice is is usually due to the breakdown of the red blood cells. Other possible symptoms include fever, enlarged glands, kidney failure and in severe cases or if left untreated it is often fatal.

OK, it’s bad, but surely now the infected dogs are treated the problem has been fixed?

No - babesiosis is transmitted by ticks. The unusual thing about this outbreak is that the dogs all became infected in the UK - all previous cases have contracted it abroad. This means that there’s a population of ticks living in the UK that are carrying the infection, and spreading it to every animal they bite.

So it’s going to spread?

Exactly - foxes will carry the infection to other areas, and be bitten by ticks there, infecting them. It’s probable that eventually ticks across the UK will be infected.

What, every tick?

No, that’s one bit of good news - Babesia can only be carried by the (pretty uncommon) Meadow Tick, Dermacentor reticulatus. The common Sheep Tick (Ixodes ricinus) doesn’t carry them. Meadow Ticks are most common in the south-west of England, west Wales and (you guessed it) Essex and Kent.

Can the disease be treated?

Yes, it can - special anti-babesia medications are available to kill the parasites, and with intensive care and sometimes blood transfusions, most infected dogs will survive.

So how do I protect my dog? Is there a vaccine?

Sadly, no there isn’t a vaccine in the UK - however, ticks can only transmit the disease after they’ve securely attached themselves to the dog - a process that takes about 24-48 hours. So, any treatment that repels them or kills them before this process if complete will make it really unlikely they can infect your dog. Give us a ring, and one of our vets will be able to recommend a suitable spot-on, collar, or tablet for your dog. If you do see any ticks - use a tick hook to remove it! One of our nurses can show you how, if you like.

What about me? Am I in danger?

Probably not - Babesia canis, as the name suggests, usually infects only dogs; cases in humans are very rare and usually involve people with a weakened immune system.

What should I do if I think my dog’s infected?

CALL US - straight away! The sooner a case is diagnosed and treatment started, the better the chances that they’ll make a full recovery.