Biliary Fever

by Dr Mirinda van Schoor

Tick … tick … tick …

When Rover Has Biliary Fever


What is Biliary fever?

The term, “Biliary fever” is misleading. It implies that the animal has jaundice (yellow gums); however this is not necessarily the case. Biliary fever is caused by a microscopically small parasite that gets transmitted in tick saliva when an infected tick bites the dog. Parasites multiply in the red blood cells. The body’s defence mechanisms recognise the parasites in the red blood cells and destroy the cells in order to destroy the parasites. Red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen to the organs, muscles etc. If there are not enough red blood cells to carry oxygen, the animal experiences muscle weakness. Organs can also become damaged due to the lack of oxygen. The gums appear white, as enough red blood cells are no longer present in the veins to create the normal pink colour of the gums and other mucous membranes such as the inside of the eyelids. Destroyed red cells release yellow pigments which have to be processed by the liver. If the liver is unable to function optimally, the yellow pigment is circulated in the blood and causes the gums to appear yellow.

How do I know my dog has Biliary fever?

These are the symptoms to look out for:

  • Listlessness and a loss of appetite.
  • Weakness; an unwillingness to get up.
  • Pale or yellow gums
  • Dark or bloody urine
  • Vomit with a yellow tinge
  • A high fever in only some instances
  • Rapid rate of breathing

What Should I Do If I Suspect Biliary Fever?

Take your dog to the vet immediately as the only medication that is successful in killing the biliary parasite has to be injected. No effective tablets, syrups or powders are available.. The sooner the disease is diagnosed and treated, the better the chances of survival.

What Will The Vet Do?

The vet will examine the dog, look at the gums, listen to his breathing and feel the belly to check for enlarged organs such as the liver or spleen. He will take a blood smear from the ear tip and examine the red blood cells and find the biliary parasites. If biliary fever is detected, he may draw blood in order to do a red cell count.

What Does Treatment Involve?

The vet will inject the biliary fever medication.  If the red cell count is very low and the animal is very weak or having difficulties breathing, the vet may have to do a blood transfusion. In some cases the dog may have to go on a drip. Some dogs may need additional glucose, electrolytes or potassium intravenously (through a drip)  Some animals may need oxygen supplementation.

Should There Be Any Changes In His Diet At This Time?

People used to think that dogs suffering from biliary fever should get supplements like iron to replace the “building blocks” of the red blood cells. We used to feed them things like raw liver and dosed them with tonics. We now know that this is not necessary.  Dogs need a good quality dog food, perhaps with a slightly higher energy content. The nutritional needs of a dog recovering from biliary fever does not differ much from that of a dog recovering from any other disease. Modern veterinary diets contain enough nutrients and no additional supplementation in the form of tonic syrups, tablets or powders should be necessary.

Could I Have Prevented This Disease? 

There is no vaccination against biliary fever.  Regular application of an anti-tick formulation will help prevent the possibility of this disease as your vet will be able to give you advice on tick control products. Products include dips, sprays, collars and spot on formulations. Be sure to ask for a product that has a “residual effect”. This means that the product will stay on the animal and keep him free of ticks for a long period of time and not only at the time of application of the product.

©Pet’s Health

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