Coccidia in puppies can cause severe health problems, but many puppy owners might not understand what it is. 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, with four species being 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 intestinal disease. Giardia is another protozoal parasite that can make puppies sick and telling the difference between the two is up to your veterinarian. The symptoms can look very similar so it's best to let a trained professional make the call.
How Are Puppies Infected?
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 either from licking themselves or contaminated objects or by eating raw meat or other infected animals.
Signs of Coccidiosis
Puppies stressed by other illness such as parvovirus or roundworms, an unsanitary environment, and/or the crowded conditions of pet stores and shelters, are at highest risk for coccidiosis. The earliest sign typically is mild diarrhea which becomes more severe until it contains mucus and sometimes blood.
Anorexia, weight loss and dehydration follow. This acute phase lasts up to ten days, and in extreme cases, puppies may die especially if left untreated. Diagnosis is made by finding oocysts during a microscopic examination of a stool sample.
Treating The Disease
Puppies are usually treated for five days to 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. A Severe case may demand hospitalization to counter dehydration with fluid therapy.
Sanitation is the single most important prevention of coccidiosis, particularly in kennels or other environments where large numbers of dogs are housed. Environmental control is important. Remove feces promptly from the yard or kennel to prevent infection or reinfection.
Coccidia is resistant to common disinfectants, but a strong ammonium hydroxide solution or heat treatment using boiling water, steam or a flame gun (on cement or gravel runs) is effective. Disinfect runs, cages and food bowls every day to destroy infective organisms.
In high-risk environments, puppies may benefit from the use of a preventative drug called amprolium 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 so 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, and should only be used under your veterinarian's supervision.