Dogs at risk from tick-borne disease

20 March 2016

Interview with

Chris Basu, Royal Veterinarian College

Dog walkers are being told to avoid certain areas, as several cases of a disease dogcaused by a tick-borne parasite have cropped up in the past few weeks. Chris Basu explained what has been causing the concern...

Chris Basu - In the past few weeks we've diagnosed a few cases of something called Babesia in some dogs in Essex.  Babesia is a blood parasite that is transmitted by ticks; these little eight legged creatures that suck blood.  Babesia is quite an exotic disease which makes it sound nicer than what it is; meaning it is a disease that's found in warmer climates.  It's most often found in European countries but we're actually starting to find it more and more in this country.  Part of the reason for that is we have lots of import and export of pet dogs.  We have lots of dogs coming in from countries in Europe or pet owners in this country taking their dogs on holiday, bringing them back.  So we're seeing lots of these diseases coming in that route but what's significant is we're now seeing these diseases in dogs that have never traveled abroad and that's something we've found in the past few weeks in these dogs.

Chris - What happens when a dog gets this.

Chris Basu - It's a nasty parasite.  It's a blood parasite, meaning  when it's transmitted by a tick, the little parasite bury themselves into red blood cells and they reproduce.  When they do this the red blood cells actually break down meaning the dogs can get very suddenly very ill from anaemia and the symptoms might vary from just a bit of weakness, a bit of tiredness, but sometimes the symptoms can be very severe indeed and the dogs can very quickly die.  It's a very serious disease indeed.

Chris - How do you treat it?  Can you treat it?

Chris Basu - It's a really tricky thing to treat.  There are ways that we can treat it but the effectiveness of the treatment isn't fantastic and even if we think the dogs are cured, there's absolutely no guarantee they're cured and can relapse in future.  So prevention is definitely better than trying to mop it up afterwards.

Chris - Toni...

Toni - I just wanted to ask is there any evidence it's transferable to another animal?

Chris - And humans?

Chris Basu - The parasite itself (Babesia canis) is quite dog specific.  There are different Babesia species that people can get but they're completely different so no-one's going to get sick from their dogs which have this disease. Because it's a blood parasite, there can be transmission between dogs but it usually has to be blood to blood so dogs that are fighting, for example, are more at risk but the more normal route is picking up from an infected tick.

Chris - Are those ticks distributed right across the UK or are there hot spots?

Chris Basu - There are hot spots but if you look at the distribution or the places where people have identified these ticks then yes, they're actually pretty widespread across the UK but there are concentrations in pockets.

Chris - Dave...

Dave - So why weren't we getting it in this country before?  Is it a climate change thing with different ticks.

Chris Basu - Yes, it potentially is a climate change thing.  The parasites and the ticks themselves, they tend to be found in more warmer climates.  As you've noticed, we've had some very mild winters over the past few years and it's possible then that these diseases aren't dying off over winter, so it's possible they're actually starting to build up.  Then, controversially, a few years ago, there was a relaxation in the pet import and export rules.  Prior to (I think) 2012/2013 you had to actually treat your animal for ticks before it came into this country and they've relaxed that now so you don't have to do that, so it might be linked to that as well, so that's a relatively controversial decision.

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