Biliary in dogs and cats: symptoms and how to treat tick bite fever

Biliary (also known as tick bite fever) in dogs is the number one infectious disease affecting dogs in South Africa, and is potentially fatal if left untreated. In cats it is not quite as common, but still a threat, and one that needs to be watched closely. Fortunately, it can be easy to spot and can be treated if diagnosed in time.

What is biliary?

Biliary in dogs is an infectious disease which is not unlike malaria in humans in that it is caused by parasites (Babesia canis) that enter the bloodstream via a bite from either the yellow dog tick or the kennel tick. These parasites destroy the infected animal’s red blood cells, which can result in anaemia. Not all ticks carry the parasite, but if a ‘healthy’ tick bites an infected dog, they will then become a carrier and can transmit the disease to another animal. Biliary in cats present many of the same symptoms but the parasite in question differs. Caused by the Babesia felis parasite, feline biliary appears to be largely limited to coastal areas, where the locals seem to have developed an immunity to the disease. However, cats from inland (and especially those with compromised immune systems) are particularly at risk. 

Symptoms of biliary

Fortunately, the symptoms of biliary in dogs are pretty easy to spot. They won’t be their usual full of energy, tail-wagging selves. Cats are generally more reserved by nature, but similar symptoms can be observed.

Symptoms include:

  • Extreme fatigue and lethargy
  • Loss of appetite (and as a result, rapid weight loss)
  • Pale gums and inner eyelids
  • Very dark or red urine
  • Fever
  • Cats will also appear unusually unkempt, having lost interest in their regular grooming routine

In more severe cases, the parasites release toxic substances called soluble parasite antigens (SPAs) which can affect several organs (such as the lungs, heart and brain). In this instance hospitalisation is required.

What to do if you suspect your dog or cat has biliary

All suspected cases of biliary in dogs and cats will need to be treated by a veterinarian. They will need to take a blood sample (usually from the ear), and will examine it under a microscope. If parasites are evident, biliary will be diagnosed.

Treatment of biliary in dogs and cats

For dogs, depending on the severity of the anaemia (or if any complications are present), a drug will be administered by injection. These drugs can be toxic for the animal if not used correctly, so it is vital that the vet administers it. If there are complications, or the anaemia has reached dangerous levels, a transfusion may be necessary and your pet will need to be hospitalized. 

Feline biliary is trickier to treat. Drugs are effective against reducing symptoms and the presence of the parasite but not complete elimination. Often it is up to the cat’s own immune system to overcome the infection. Hence, it is important to have regular follow up check-ups with your veterinarian to monitor their recovery and any potential relapses. 

How to prevent your pets from contracting biliary

As always, prevention is better than cure. Avoid known areas where ticks are present. Keep your own garden’s grass short. And do a thorough inspection after returning from walks. Regular tick and flea treatment is recommended, shampooing (try Regal Tick and Flea Shampoo) as well as dips. Also, wash bedding regularly as ticks can survive up to a few days without a blood host. Vaccination is also an effective preventative measure against biliary.

If you have any questions or concerns with regards to your pets, it is advisable to consult a registered veterinarian. This article is intended as an educational tool and should not be used to diagnose or treat a sick animal.

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