Babesia gibsoni: Recognition and recommendations for shelters

Babesia gibsoni: Recognition and recommendations for shelters

Does your animal shelter handle dog fighting cases? Do you admit or transfer in dogs who may come from a fighting background? Then Dr. Sarah Kirk wants you to have Babesia gibsoni on your radar.

In her recent shelter medicine Masters Degree capstone presentation, Dr. Kirk tackled the challenges of diagnosing and treating this parasite in a shelter environment, where both time and money are limited.

Because B. gibsoni is easily transmitted by bites, it’s more common in dogs who come from fighting backgrounds than in dogs — even other pit bull terrier-type dogs — who don’t. The parasite can also be transmitted from dams to their puppies, through blood transfusion, and by ticks.

Dogs with the parasite can be asymptomatic, or have symptoms including severe hemolytic anemia, thrombocytopenia, and other dangerous signs of the infection. Most dogs Kirk sees are asymptomatic, which presents a serious problem for shelters that want to protect other dogs, both in their facility and in the community, from the parasite.

The most sensitive test for B. gibsoni, a PCR test, costs around $50 to run, with a turnaround time of 1-3 days. A less sensitive but nearly-free test can be done on a blood smear in-house. “You may be able to see B. gibsoni during acute infection in a smear,” said Kirk, “most likely with capillary blood from the ear or a toe nail.”

Can B. gibsoni be cured? Not exactly, but the parasite can be cleared. In her capstone research, Kirk found 93 percent of infected dogs over 6 months of age cleared the parasite after 60 days of treatment; 95 percent had cleared it by 90 days of treatment.

For puppies, the case is less clear, however, in her research all the puppies born in the shelter to treated infected mothers were negative at 4 and 8 weeks old.

Some dogs, unfortunately, never clear the infection. Those who don’t, Kirk said:

  • Are a source of infection to other dogs
  • Have the potential for renal disease/glomerulonephritis
  • Have the potential later in life for hemolytic crisis”

What should shelters do if they bring in dogs from fight busts, or who they believe were involved in fighting? “If you have a pit bull terrier-type dog with anemia, think B. gibsoni first,” Kirk said.Test with the PCR if that’s possible, and an in-house smear if not.

Next, treat dogs who test positive with her study protocol, because it’s more effective, easier, and less costly than a non-shelter protocol. She recommends giving the following medications concurrently for 10 days:

  • Atovaquone 13.4 mg/kg, compounded into pill form, given every 8 hours in a fatty meal
  • Azithromycin 10 mg/kg every 24 hours

She also suggested shelters decide if they would hold dogs in the shelter or place in foster homes. If the latter, they need to be placed in foster homes without any other resident dogs. If held in the shelter, she said, “Even if it’s only for 30 days while waiting to test… these dogs need enrichment. That’s a long time.”

Although casual contact isn’t a concern for transmission, fights are, so they dogs should wear basket muzzles.

Dr. Kirk reviewed additional material, including how to manage adoption of dogs who tested positive in the past, in her presentation, which can be viewed here.

Also of interest:

Infectious diseases in dogs rescued during dogfighting investigations