Living in sunny South Africa is great, but with it comes all the parasites and diseases associated with a warm and/or tropical climate. One of these little scourges can be found nearly all over South Africa, namely ticks. Most people have at some or other time encountered a tick on their pet. This can be quite distressing – especially if you consider a disease like biliary (tick bite fever). Keeping your pets tick free is of the utmost importance for your pets’ health.

Biliary / Tick fever

Biliary is a potentially fatal disease which kills thousands of dogs in South-Africa each year. It is caused by a protozoan (a type of parasite) called Babesia canis which is carried and transmitted by the Yellow Dog tick (below) and when an infected tick bites your dog, he/she will become infected when the parasite enters their bloodstream.

These parasites then multiply in your dog’s red blood cells and this multiplication, together with the body’s immune response (the body tries to attack the parasites in the red cells which also causes the cells to break up), destroy the red blood cells, – resulting in anaemia (lack of red blood cells). If not treated early, this anaemia can become severe enough to be fatal. Often the parasite does not only cause anaemia, but also life threatening complications such as kidney and/or liver failure.

The symptoms to look out for in your dog include: loss of appetite, lethargy and weakness, fever, pale gums (may later turn yellow), dark or port coloured urine, yellow stools and, in severe cases, even seizures. Some pet owners may not notice any of the above signs but rather they notice that their pet is “off colour” or “not themselves”. These are often very early signs in the disease and should not be ignored. If you notice any of the above symptoms (even if you have never seen a tick on your dog), take your dog to your veterinarian immediately. With biliary having a 10-20 day incubation period you might not link the disease symptoms with finding a tick on your dog. Waiting even 1 day too long can make the difference between life and death. The quicker biliary is diagnosed and treated the higher the chance of survival for your pet.

Biliary is easy to diagnose. Your vet will take a little blood from your dog’s ear and make a blood smear which will then be checked under the microscope, providing a quick and 100% accurate way of diagnosing this disease. Treatment includes taking a blood sample to establish how anaemic your pet is, determining how intensively the vet needs to treat your dog. In very mild cases a simple injection will cure the disease and in severe cases hospitalisation, blood transfusions and very intensive supervised care is needed. Due to the intensity of care provided in severe treatment of biliary it can be very costly All of this, not mention sparing your dog the trauma and saving his/her life, can be avoided by proper tick control.

Biliary In Cats: 

Biliary in cats is caused by Babesia felis. Fortunately it is only found along the coastal regions of South-Africa (but unfortunately that means we get it here in the Helderberg!). It is important to note that biliary in cats does not present with the same symptoms as in dogs. Most of the clinical signs include loss of appetite, lethargy, weakness and an unkept hair coat. Fever and pale or yellow gums are uncommon in cats with biliary – except when other underlying diseases are present. These may include Mycoplasma (another tick borne disease in cats), feline leukemia virus (FeLV) or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV/feline aids). Many of the same complications as observed in dogs, are seen in cats namely kidney failure, liver failure, fluid on the lungs and central nervous system signs.

Diagnosis is not as easy as in dogs as the parasites are a lot smaller and your vet might want to send a blood sample to the lab for testing. Fortunately response to treatment in cats is generally good if the disease is caught in time. Unfortunately, when one of the above underlying diseases is present the prognosis may be guarded despite early and correct treatment.