Coccidia in puppies can cause severe health problems. This parasite can cause an intestinal disease that requires lengthy treatment and can result in death if untreated. However, with good sanitation practices and regular checkups, it can be prevented or caught early so your puppy can get back to good health.
What Is Coccidia?
Coccidiosis is an intestinal disease caused by coccidia, a common protozoal parasite that affects both domestic and wild animals. In fact, 22 species of coccidia can infect the intestinal tract of dogs; there are four species which are most common. Dogs can also have parasites like Isospora, Hammondia, and Sarcocystis.
Coccidiosis is relatively common in dogs. The parasite colonizes the lining of the intestine, and adult dogs often have coccidia in their system without getting sick. Puppies less than a month old are affected most often with the intestinal disease, and are the most vulnerable. Many adult dogs infected with coccidiosis never show obvious signs of being ill.
Giardia is another protozoal parasite that can make puppies sick. Your veterinarian will be able to tell the difference between the two. The symptoms can look very similar so it's best to let a trained professional make the call.
Coccidia Parasites in Humans
There are some species of the coccidia parasite that are contagious to humans, and can cause serious health problems. These include cryptosporidium, which is transmitted via contaminated water or food, or poor hygiene. Symptoms include a cough and diarrhea, and it's usually only worrisome for people with compromised immune systems. The other is toxoplasma usually found in cat feces (and which is why pregnant women shouldn't change the litter box) and undercooked meat. Toxoplasma causes toxoplasmosis in humans.
Causes of Coccidiosis
Dogs are infected by swallowing the immature parasite. Five to seven days later, the eggs—called oocysts—develop in the pup's intestine and are passed in the stool. These microscopic oocysts require several days in the soil to become infective.
Puppies contract coccidia by swallowing this infective stage of the parasite. It may be from licking themselves or contaminated objects, or by eating raw meat or other infected animals. This is a little gross, but, coccidia are found in dog feces, and since many dogs will eat just about anything, this is how a lot of them contract coccidiosis.
Signs and Symptoms of Coccidiosis in Puppies
Certain puppies are at the highest risk for coccidiosis. This includes those who are stressed by other illnesses such as parvovirus or roundworms. Puppies living in an unsanitary environment and/or the crowded conditions of pet stores and shelters are also very vulnerable.
The earliest sign is typically mild diarrhea, which becomes more severe until it contains mucus and sometimes blood.
Diagnosis is made by finding oocysts during a microscopic examination of a stool sample.
Treatment of Coccidiosis
Puppies are usually treated with an anti-parasitic medication for between five days and two to three weeks to eliminate the parasite. Typically, resolution of the symptoms is slow once signs develop, and it may require a week of therapy before improvement is seen. Severe cases may demand hospitalization to counter dehydration with fluid therapy.
In high-risk environments, puppies may benefit from the use of a preventative drug called amprolium, which is more commonly used to treat chickens. However, it's not approved for puppies and only effective against one stage of the protozoan's life cycle. It must be administered for about seven days until all parasites reach this stage and are destroyed.
Amprolium can cause a thiamine deficiency in puppies if used beyond ten days. It should only be used under your veterinarian's supervision.
How to Prevent Coccidiosis
Sanitation is the single most important prevention of coccidiosis. Environmental control is important, particularly in kennels or other environments where large numbers of dogs are housed. Remove feces promptly from the yard or kennel to prevent infection or reinfection.
Coccidia is resistant to common disinfectants. A strong ammonium hydroxide solution or heat treatment using boiling water, steam, or a flame gun (on cement or gravel runs) is effective. Be sure to disinfect runs, cages, and food bowls every day to destroy infective organisms.