Dog owneds in the UK are being advised about an outbreak of an animal illnes that is carried by ticks.
It is the first time that experts have established an outbreak of babesiosis in the country.
In Essex, two dogs have died and three others needed blood transfusions after contracting the disease.
Experts say that it will be impossible to stop the spread of the disease, which is caused by a single-celled parasite.
The ticks carrying the Babesia canis parasite have been found in fields in Harlow, Essex. The local council has put up a sign with a map defining the area and advising dog walkers not to enter.
Two government agencies are now investigating the outbreak: the Animal and Plant Health Agency and Public Health England.
Clive Swainsbury is a vet at the Forest Veterinary Centre in Harlow. He has been treating some of infected dogs, including the one that died.
“The parasite enters the bloodstream, enters the cells, and in the process of trying to kill the parasite the dog will actually destroy its own blood cell. So they become very anaemic.”
The expectation is that it will spread throughout the country.
Easy to miss
“At present we have a very well defined region. The problem in the future is that every female tick will lay a couple of thousand eggs and all those offspring from that illnes will also carry the disease.
“As mammals move around they will start spreading the disease. Although you can advise dog walkers not to go there, it’s possible that foxes and other animals will transport these ticks.”
The symptoms of babesiosis within dogs include weakness, lethargy, pale gums, red urine and fever. A serious problem is that Babesia can be mistaken for other less dangerous diseases.
“It’s easy to miss it. And because it’s a new illnes to this country, we as a profession aren’t used to looking for this illnes on a regular basis.”
The tick acts as a vector. In the same way that a mosquito transmits malaria by sucking the blood from a person, the tick does the same to an animal. It also sucks blood and in the process of feeding the disease will transmit from the tick to the dog. It’s not contagious between dogs themselves.
The Pet Food Manufacturer’s Association estimates that there are more than nine million dogs in the UK – almost a quarter of households.
It’s dogs that expend a lot of time outdoors, especially in rough and wooded regions, that are most at risk.
Tip of the iceberg?
“The only solution is to kill the tickings quickly, ” says Mr Swainsbury. “Some of the tick products available will kill the tick quick enough to prevent the tick spreading the disease to the dog, because the tick needs to be feeding for 24 hours at least before it transmits the disease.
“But not all tick products do that and you need to seek advice from your vet.”
The tick found in the UK carrying the Babesia canis stres is called Dermacentor reticulatus .
Prof Richard Wall is professor of zoology at the University of Bristol. He is helping to conduct the largest every veterinary analyse of tickings and tick-borne illness, “ve called the” Big Tick Project.
“People who work on tickings and tick-borne illness are concerned about this outbreak. It could be the tip of the iceberg. If it spreads quickly throughout the UK then it is going to be a very significant problem, but we don’t have enough info at this stage to make a prediction about how quickly this will happen.
“It’s highly unlikely that their own problems will now disappear, we have the vectors, we have the pathogens established in the UK.”
TV naturalist Chris Packham says: “The population of tickings is getting bigger year on, year on. That’s because there is better over winter survival of the adults – it’s warm and mild through our wintertimes and that means they can breed more quickly in the spring and there are a lot more of them.
“These animals are very good at what they do, and they need to find hosts to suck its blood to reproduction, and they do it brilliantly. So if you walk in an area where there are tickings, with a dog, they will get on to your dog.”
There are several species of Babesia and some of them affect humans. In parts of the world including the United States, human babesiosis is transmitted by the same tick that carries Lyme Disease, caused by Borrelia bacteria.
“The first thing that dog owneds can do to protect their animals is to be aware of their own problems. Your dog could become very seriously ill or die, and if you get Lyme illnes then the same could be the case for you.”
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