“Your dog has blood parasites” – I am sure those of us, pet owners, who heard this diagnosis for the first time would be shocked, desperate and certainly panic. Blood parasites sounds rather serious, dangerous and deadly. And most certainly, it is. In this article I will try to explain the basics: how do dogs get it, what are the different types of parasites, and finally, how to recognize the symptoms and how to treat and prevent it.
In South East Asia (and globally), when the words “blood parasites” are used it is often referred to the tickborne diseases, such as Anaplasma (Anaplasmosis), Babesia (Babesiosis), or/and Enrlechia (Ehrlichiosis) – commonly grouped in what is often called “tickborne disease” or “tick fever”. There are more, but these are the three we commonly see here in Cambodia. All three of these parasites are carried by ticks and transmitted (released) through the tick saliva when tick’s beak is firmly inside the blood stream, feeding on the blood of the host animal. In fact, the blood parasites use ticks as a reservoir to reach the host mammals and once they are inside the blood stream, their own harmful feast begin.
Once released in the blood stream of the dog, it affects the cells in the dog’s bloodstream. White blood cells (needed to fight infection), red blood cells (needed for carrying oxygen throughout the body), and platelets (needed to help form blood clots) can all be severely affected.
According to literature: “They infect and replicate in the red blood cells, resulting in both direct and immune-mediated hemolytic anemia, where the red blood cells (RBCs) are broken down through hemolysis (destruction) and hemoglobin is released into the body. This release of hemoglobin can lead to jaundice, and to anemia when the body cannot produce enough new red blood cells to replace the ones being destroyed. Immune-mediated hemolytic anemia is likely to be more clinically important than parasite-induced RBC destruction, since the severity of the condition does not depend on the degree of parasitemia.”
The most common blood parasite we see at our clinic is called Ehrlichiosis. According to parasitologists, it causes three distinct clinical phases of illness: acute, subclinical, and chronic.
In the acute phase, clinical signs occur about one to three weeks after an infected tick bites a dog. Symptoms associated with this phase can include lethargy (tiredness), fever, appetite loss, and enlarged lymph nodes. In some cases, clinical signs can resolve without treatment. However, if the infection is not treated, it progresses to the subclinical phase.
In the subclinical phase, the dog may appear completely normal because clinical signs are not observed. This phase may last many months or even years, but eventually the bacteria can reactivate and start to cause illness again.
In the chronic phase, the dog may again show vague signs such as fever, lethargy, and appetite loss. However, as the Ehrlichia organism affects the blood cells and bone marrow, clinical signs may include bleeding problems and anemia (an inadequate number of red blood cells). At this point, the bacteria may also affect the brain, causing seizures and poor coordination.
Other clinical signs associated with ehrlichiosis can include joint pain, nose bleeding, and swelling as well as autoimmune disease in which the dog produces antibodies that damage its own cells. If ehrlichiosis causes severe complications, death can result.
Diagnosis and treatment of Enrlechia or Anaplasma should only be left to your trusted vet. It is relatively easy to detect if your vet has the right tools, but I highly recommend doing several different blood tests to avoid misdiagnosis.
The combination of full physical examination by your doctor, SNAP 4Dx test and Complete Blood Count (CBC) blood work would give you the most complete picture about your dog’s general health; it will also certainly detect the presents of blood parasites in the body. Relying only on one general blood test can be rather dangerous.
For instance, the changes in white blood count or low platelet count, may increase suspicion of tickborne disease, but these abnormalities could also be attributed to other underlying health problems, such as simple (yet very harmful) hookworm infestation. Likewise, relying only on SNAP tests can be just as dangerous, as any SNAP tests – even the best there is on the market – may produce false negative results. In short, not all dogs develop changes in CBC results, so it is possible to have absolutely normal blood test results, even though your animal is infected with blood parasites.
Another point to remember, is that the dogs can be infected with ehrlichiosis, babesiosis and anaplasmosis all at the same time. This is why many veterinarians recommend screening for other tick-borne diseases during the diagnostic testing. It is especially true in Cambodia, in the tropical climate, where ticks are absolutely everywhere.
In Cambodia in my opinion, where a huge number of dogs are living (and dying) with blood parasites, the SNAP 4Dx test and blood work should be carried out as a simple annual screening. And of course, should you see the symptoms of the tickborne parasites in your dog such as lethargy, lack of appetite, fever, nose bleeding or lameness – please seek help of your vet immediately and ask for tests to determine the cause for the symptoms. The key is not to wait too long: many patients we receive come when the dogs are too ill and weak to survive.
The main treatment of Anaplasma and Enrlichea is antibiotics, with Doxycyclin being the choice of treatment, effective and inexpensive (Babesiosis is harder to diagnose and there is a separate medicine used to treat it). However, if the condition of your dog is too serious, and has caused other complications, the dog may need to be hospitalised, receive emergency treatment, so all complications and side effects of illness are treated separately, using different therapies to target secondary issues caused by tickborne parasites. For instance, in many cases, we receive the dogs with severe internal and nose bleeding; in such cases it is absolutely vital to provide intensive 24-hour care to the animal, until the bleeding stops and the animal is stable. It is not uncommon, to provide blood transfusions and other intensive supportive therapies to stabilize the dog, while treating tickborne parasites.
I cannot stress enough to every pet owner that prevention is the key in the well-being of your dog. The best way to avoid heartache, high vet bills and sleepless nights is to ensure your animals are completely treated to repel ticks. There are number of products available in the market that are effectively provide full coverage for ticks: Bravecto pill (administered every 3 months), NexGuard Spectra (administered monthly) & Seresto collar (changed every 6-8 months). Personally, I suggest using the combination of the collar and a pill for stronger prevention, this is what I do personally and in my pack all is healthy. Revolution Drops provide some coverage from ticks, but it is not strong enough for the Cambodian environment. Likewise, in our practice we found that injections of Ivermectin or Frontline drops are useless against tick bites.
Finally, if you do see occasional tick on your dog, please bring the animal to your vet for a checkup. If you catch the illness on its early stages, the treatment will be simple, with no likely complications and needless suffering for your dog and you.
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