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Pit Bull Owners: Beware of Babesia!

09/17/2009

We need to talk about a mean little parasite called Babesia. It infects dogs' red blood cells and can cause severe anemia (decreased red blood cells) and other problems too. It has become a big problem for dogs in the US, especially American Pit Bull Terriers and American Staffordshire Terriers. Although this disease can be transmitted by ticks and other insects, it's thought that in these breeds in the US it is probably being spread when dogs bite each other, even during play or a brief disagreement. It may also be spread when dogs' tails and ears are docked.  It is likely also transmitted straight from the mom to her puppies so your dog could have Babesia even if he's never been bitten by another dog. Other dog breeds can also be infected if a dog with Babesia bites them.

It's important for Pit Bull and Staffie owners to know about Babesia because sometimes when dogs become anemic from Babesia, it is misdiagnosed as something else. Frequently it is confused with a disease called Immune Mediated Hemolytic Anemia (IMHA), which is a condition where the dog's own immune system attacks the red blood cells. If a dog with Babesia is treated with the medicines used for IMHA, which are drugs that suppress the immune system, it will make the Babesia worse. Some dogs with Babesia have vague symptoms; bottom line is that pit bulls who are anemic or mysteriously ill may need to be tested for this parasite. It's important to test for the type of Babesia that usually infects pit bulls, which is called Babesia "gibsoni" (other breeds are more commonly infected with Babesia "canis").

There are different ways to test for Babesia. Your vet can send what's called a "titer", or another test called a "PCR". The PCR is the best test, but it takes a few weeks to come back, so your vet should send both at the same time. Even if one test is negative, the other can be positive. I send my Babesia tests to to the veterinary laboratory at North Carolina State University, which I think is the best lab for this. They are very experienced with this disease, and know everything about it. There are several different kinds of Babesia and if you use a lab that doesn't do the right test for your dog, the result can be wrong. Many dogs have had "false negative" test results because they were tested for the wrong type of Babesia or with the wrong blood test instead of the PCR test. The lab at NC state tests for all the different kinds of Babesia, and they can do the PCR as long as your vet asks for it.

The best treatment for Babesia gibsoni seems to be an expensive drug called Mepron. Its other name is Atovaquone. The dogs are given Zithromax (azithromycin) at the same time. Mepron is available in the US but can be hard to find so in the meantime your vet may temporarily treat your dog with a drug called Imizol, or Imidocarb.

The bottom line: If your Pit Bull ever gets sick, make sure your vet keeps Babesia in mind!

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