A novel Babesia sp. associated with clinical signs of babesiosis in domestic cats in South Africa.
Background: Feline babesiosis, sporadically reported from various countries, is of major clinical significance in South Africa, particularly in certain coastal areas. Babesia felis, B. leo, B. lengau and B. microti have been reported from domestic cats in South Africa. Blood specimens from domestic cats (n=18) showing clinical signs consistent with feline babesiosis and confirmed to harbour Babesia spp. piroplasms by microscopy of blood smears and/or reverse line blot (RLB) hybridization were further investigated. Twelve of the RLB-positive specimens had reacted with the Babesia genus-specific probe only, which would suggest the presence of a novel or previously undescribed Babesia species. The aim of this study was to characterise these organisms using 18S rRNA gene sequence analysis. Results: The parasite 18S rRNA gene was cloned and sequenced from genomic DNA from blood samples. Assembled sequences were used to construct similarity matrices and phylogenetic relationships with known Babesia spp. Fifty-five 18S rRNA gene sequences were obtained. Sequences from 6 cats were most closely related to published B. felis sequences (99-100% sequence identity), while sequences from 5 cats were most closely related to B. leo sequences (99-100% sequence identity). One of these was the first record of B. leo in Mozambique. One sequence had 100% sequence identity with the published B. microti Otsu strain. The most significant finding was that sequences from 7 cats constituted a novel Babesia group with 96% identity to Babesia spp. previously recorded from a maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus), a raccoon (Procyon lotor) from the USA and feral raccoons from Japan, as well as from ticks collected from dogs in Japan. Conclusions: Babesia leo was unambiguously linked to babesiosis in cats. Our results indicate the presence of a novel potentially pathogenic Babesia sp. in felids in South Africa, which is not closely related to B. felis, B. lengau and B. leo, the species known to be pathogenic to cats in South Africa. Due to the lack of an appropriate type-specimen, we refrain from describing a new species but refer to the novel organism as Babesia sp. cat Western Cape.