Coccidia – a parasite that is not a worm

Coccidia (pronounced cox-IH-dee-a….kinda rhymes with a semi-laxative yogurt brand) are microscopic parasites that can infect both dogs and cats. We most commonly see it in puppies and kittens, although any age of pet can come into contact with the parasite and contract it. If your veterinarian said your pet’s poop sample tested positive for coccidia, what does that mean?

First of all, there are two types of coccidia, so it matters which one your pet actually has. And yes, we’ve had dogs or cats with both types of coccidia on one fecal test! One type infects dogs and cats, can make them sick, and we need to treat. This is Isospora, and is the main type we have in mind when talking about coccidia.

The other type, Eimeria, does not infect our pets or cause sickness, but may be found in the feces as it is “just passing through.” This is typically seen in dogs who eat rabbit feces in the yard, as rabbits (and many other critters) can carry this species of coccidia. This type we do not need to treat, as it is incapable of infecting dogs and cats – it’s literally just passing through the intestines! Some veterinarians will still tell you about it, more of a heads up to cut back on Fluffy’s poop-eating habit.

Isospora is the type of coccidia your veterinarian probably called you about. This is the type that can and does infect dogs and cats, and can make them sick if they are very young. I’ve had tiny kittens with severe coccidia infestations almost die from the diarrhea and dehydration. This fortunately is not common, but shows that in young, tiny animals, this parasite must be taken very seriously. Fortunately, most healthy adult dogs and cats can have coccidia in their intestines and show no signs at all. We still want to treat, but we don’t worry about these animals getting sick.

How does a pet contract this parasite in the first place? Unfortunately, it can be quite common in some areas. The version of the egg, called the oocyst, that infected dogs and cats pass in their stool, can survive on the ground for a year or more in non-extreme temperatures. So if a dog was at the park, had coccidia, pooped, and his owners did not clean it up, those little eggs can be waiting to infect YOUR dog months down the line! Similarly, the stray cat in the neighborhood maybe be spreading coccidia-filled feces anywhere. Infection in our pets typically happens from oral consumption of these eggs, which means eating the grass, licking the ground (one of my dogs loves that – drives me crazy), or stepping in it and licking the paw. So contracting coccidia can easily happen to any pet.

worms, dog, cat, coccidia, isospora, eimeria, puppy, kitten

Kittens are most commonly diagnosed with coccidia

Kittens typically contract coccidia from their mom, as many stray/feral cats (the ones having most of the kittens) commonly have Isospora. Momma cat can have it and might have some loose stool, maybe be a little underweight (it probably isn’t the only parasite she has!) while the tiny kittens cannot cope as well, and can get severe diarrhea.

Treatment for dogs and cats is traditionally the same sulfa-based antibiotic, which comes under the brand name Albon. There are MANY ways to treat coccidia, and I’ve had many veterinarians treat on different schedules, but they all worked. Why? Well, the medication we use isn’t so good at actually killing the coccidia. It just keeps the infestation from getting worse while the body does its thing to kill off the coccidia, or the organism dies of “natural causes.” I’ve treated mild cases for 5 days, and treated severe cases for 30 days! A lot of it depends on the age and health status of the pet, and if they are symptomatic (have diarrhea) or not.

The best approach is to avoid reinfection. It’s not hard – just don’t leave poop lying around! That sounds simple, but it can be a bit of work. Scoop the litter box twice a day while your cat/kitten is being treated. Pick up the dog poop in the yard daily. It’s the poop that sits around for days that lets the coccidia evolve into versions that can infect other pets that causes problems.

And finally, this is a parasite that people cannot contract. As you may have guessed, it is specific for its favorite family of species. Remember the Eimeria type that rabbits (and farm animals) can have and spread, but yet it doesn’t infect your dog or cat? Well both Isospora and Eimeria are like that for people. If we consume it, the parasite won’t hang on inside our intestines, but just pass on through.

So when your veterinarian calls and says your pet tested positive for coccidia, and your pet has no symptoms, do not stress about it. Treat it, scoop the poop, and move on.

And if it’s Eimeria, maybe have a heart to heart with your dog about his secret eating habits.

Posted in Parasites.

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