It can be difficult sometimes to know if your animals are sick. They can be so good at hiding the signs of their disease that by the time you notice that something is wrong they are already desperately ill. This is especially true of cats. I like to call them the great pretenders.

Babesiosis or biliary is a tick-borne disease of dogs and cats that we see often in Jeffreys Bay. In fact, this area is a hotspot of cat biliary. If your pet seems out of sorts, even if the symptoms appear vague like eating a little bit less or sleeping a little bit more, it is always a good idea to have them checked by your vet. The earlier a disease like biliary is caught, the easier it is to treat.

Biliary is caused by a parasite called Babesia felis (in the case of cats) and Babesia canis (in the case of dogs). There are different strains of Babesia, especially in dogs, which can cause variable severity of illness. The Babesia parasites enter the blood stream of the patient when they are bitten by a tick, and then multiply in the red blood cells. This results in an immune reaction by the patient’s body, which causes the infected red blood cells to be broken down and leads to anaemia. Anaemia is when the patient does not have enough red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body. Sometimes, and more commonly in dogs, the immune system overreacts and start to break down even healthy red blood cells, leading to a complication called immune-mediated haemolytic anaemia (IMHA).

It takes 10-14 days from the time your pet is bitten to the time they start to become sick. Signs you may see when your pet has biliary include lethargy (just not being him or herself, looking sad), not wanting to eat and pale gums. Sometimes their gums will become yellow because the liver becomes overwhelmed with dealing with the breakdown of the blood cells. Many cats with biliary start to lick cement or eat their cat litter, which can lead to constipation.

The vet will do a thorough clinical examination of your pet and may find different symptoms such as a fever, which is more common in dogs, pale or yellow gums and an enlarged spleen. The spleen becomes enlarged in biliary patients because it is an important part of the immune system and becomes very involved in fighting the invading parasites. Biliary will be confirmed on a blood smear, which is made from a tiny drop of blood from a pinprick of the patient’s ear. The parasites can then be seen inside the red blood cells under the microscope. Dog and cat biliary parasites look quite different, but occasionally cats do get a parasite that resembles a dog parasite and the cat will then need extra treatment.

Once the diagnosis has been made, a treatment plan needs to be worked out. A blood count will be done to determine how bad the anaemia is. In some cases, patients need to be hospitalised and placed on a drip, and sometimes they will even be given a blood transfusion from a kind donor dog or cat. In these cases, the disease can be life-threatening. 

There are specific drugs for the treatment of biliary. In dogs it is a once off injection, and if the disease is caught early this may be all that the patient needs. In cats it is a long course of tablets, although if a cat also has the dog-like parasite in its blood it will need an injection as well. Supportive treatment is often also given in the form of vitamins and liver support to help the body to recover and to stimulate the appetite. 

In most instances animals that are diagnosed with biliary respond well to treatment and recover quickly. Sometimes, however, there are unforeseen complications and it is important to keep your pet inside and monitor his/ her recovery carefully. If you have any concerns about anything always discuss them with your vet.

To prevent biliary, there are numerous highly effective tick and flea products on the market, and it is essential to use something regularly so that your pets are always covered. Talk to your veterinary receptionist about which one would be most suitable for your pet. As a famous doctor once said, prevention is better than cure!

Written by Dr. Ulrika Glanville