Coccidia are a type of parasite that all pet owners should be aware of. Most commonly seen in puppies and kittens, Coccidia can affect pets in all life stages, and if left untreated can lead to serious health problems, and even death.

What is Coccidia?

are microscopic, single-celled protozoa that live and reproduce within the animal cell. In animals, the coccidian protozoa cause the disease coccidiosis. The genus Isospora is the most common cause of intestinal coccidiosis in companion animals.

While the Isospora can affect both dogs and cats, each strain or “species” of the parasite can only in turn effect once species of animal. Isospora canis, Isospora ohioenis, Isospora burrowsi and Isospora neorivolta are the most commonly encountered species of coccidia that effects dogs. In cats, Isospora felis and Isospora rivolta are most commonly seen. As a whole, presence of any of these protozoa is considered a coccidiosis infection

Coccidia parasites are also encountered in humans, in the form of Cyrptosporidium. A common ailment of cattle, cryptosproridiosis in humans usually occurs when a person is immune-compromised, and most commonly acquired by working with live cattle or meat processing plants.

How is Coccidia transmitted?

Coccidiosis is spread from one dog to another by contact with infected feces or through infected soil or bodily fluids. In healthy, adult dogs, an infection may be present but in many cases these dogs may never show symptoms of the disease due to a strong immune system. However all infected dogs can continue to transmit the disease, regardless of whether or not they are showing symptoms of infection. Puppies generally show symptoms of coccidia soon after becoming infected, due to their weaker immune systems.

Puppies from infected mothers are not born with the disease, but will quickly acquire it via their exposure to their mothers’ feces. Via ingestion of the infected fecal material, coccidia is then transported into the puppies’ intestines. Lacking immunity, the coccidia quickly reproduce extensively and quickly wreak havoc on the puppies young body.

What are the symptoms of Coccidia infection?

The most common sign of coccidiosis in dogs is diarrhea of varying severity. Profuse, watery diarrhea is the most tell-tale sign of a serious infection. In advanced cases, blood and mucous may also be present, as the protozoa destroys the lining of the intestines as they continue to grow in numbers.

All diarrheas have the potential to be a dangerous health problem, especially in puppies. Left untreated, diarrhea can lead to severe dehydration, vomiting, lethargy and even death.

In puppies, signs of infection typically appear between the ages of four and twelve weeks of age, becoming more prevalent during times of stress (ie weaning, going to a new home, etc.)

How is Coccidiosis diagnosed? Can it be treated?

All episodes of diarrhea in dogs, and especially in puppies, should be considered a serious medical problem, and a veterinarian should see the pet immediately.

While diarrhea is a major symptom of coccidia, unfortunately it is also a common component in several other diseases that can also present themselves in puppies. These can include:

Parvovirus Gastroenteritis: One of the most devastating diseases of young animals, parvo can often be fatal, and is almost completely preventable through a strong vaccination program. A highly contagious virus, initial signs include vomiting, profuse, bloody diarrhea and lethargy. These can quickly progress to severe dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, sepsis and death. Treatment of parvo is difficult, and even with treatment as many as 90% of affected puppies may die.

Hookworms: are transmitted by ingestion of contaminated feces, and developed parasites attach to the lining of the intestinal tract and feed on the blood supply there. Hookworms in puppies can be devastating, as they can cause severe anemia, weakness and bloody diarrhea.

Roundworms: As many as 85% of puppies are born with roundworms.Roundworms can grow to up to seven inches long and appear spaghetti-like, long and thin. Roundworms mature quickly, and severe side effects of may begin to be seen in puppies at only a few weeks of age. A pot-bellied appearance, poor growth and a rough, dull hair coat are signs of a worm infestation. Diarrhea and vomiting may be present as well, and the dog may expel worms in their stool or vomitus. If allowed to continue unchecked, the worms can cause pneumonia, intestinal obstructions and death.

Giardia: an intestinal parasite caused by a single-celled organism that lives in the intestines of infected animals. Giardia can be transmitted from pet to pet, through contaminated feed or water, and through the soil. It is also a zoonotic disease, which can be transmitted from pets to humans. The most common symptom of Giardia is diarrhea of varying severity, and cause symptoms in dogs at all life stages.

Because these and many other diseases can all appear to have similar symptoms, it is imperative that your veterinarian examine your dog, in order to prescribe the required treatment.

Coccidia is diagnosed via fecal screening. This may be done at your veterinarian’s office, or he may elect to send the sample to a laboratory for a more thorough examination. Coccidia can be readily identified when present in fecal samples, however the cysts do not shed into the feces at all times, so a negative fecal screening may not completely rule-out coccidia as a cause of diarrhea. If coccidiosis is suspected, your veterinarian may recommend a treatment protocol in spite of a negative fecal test.

Coccdiosis is easily treated, and medication to cure it is available from your veterinarian. In mild cases, treatment may be in the form of a liquid or pill medication given to your pet for 5-10 days. In severely affected pets, hospitalization may be required so that intravenous fluids and other supportive care can be provided until your pet begins to recover from the side effects of the infection. Following treatment, a recheck fecal test should be performed in 30 days to ensure the infection has been completely eradicated.

Can coccidia be prevented?

Unfortunately, because coccidia are transmitted from dog to dog via infected soil, it is impossible to totally prevent coccidia infections. Dogs who frequent places where other dogs congregate, such as dog parks, doggy day care, groomers, kennels or the beach are at increased risk of infection. In healthy adult dogs, they may acquire the coccidia parasite and not show symptoms of infection for most or even all of their life- but they continue to excrete the parasite in their feces, thus perpetuating it’s contamination in the soil.

Annual fecal tests are the best way to detect and treat coccidiosis in dogs. In breeding females, care should be taken to screen and or treat for the infection prior to becoming pregnant, to help prevent transmitting the disease to her puppies once born.

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