› Coccidia


Coccidiosis is the fancy term given to a dog or puppy that has Coccidia in their intestinal tract. These little organisms are not worms but rather a one celled animal called a protozoan and is one of the most common protozoan infections in North America.

In fact, according to the Companion Animal Parasite Council’s published survey indicate that it is present in from 3% to 38% of dogs.  

This organism affect many different animals including dogs but all are species specific meaning that those Coccidia that inhabit the intestinal tracts of dogs are different from those that dwell in other animals.  And now for the good and bad news: 

The  good news is humans cannot get the Coccidiosis infection that dogs get but people can be affected by other forms of the coccidial organism. 

The problem with Coccidia is that it tends to multiply rapidly causing cells in the intestinal wall to rupture thus causing damage to the intestinal wall. 

The other problem with little one celled organism is that they are extremely resistant to environmental conditions and almost completely impossible to remove from the environment entirely. 

These protozoans are passed in the feces of one animal and can contaminate food and water sources.  Then they are ingested by other
animals and start their life cycle all over again in the new host.

In other words, puppies that eat contaminated soil, grass or poop can become infected.  Another very easy way that puppies become infected is to walk through soil, grass, or poop and then walk on their food or chew toy. 

Remember that very young puppies are just like toddlers learning to walk; they get excited and forget what they are doing.  In their excitement a puppy could walk on some poop, then jump into its water bowl, and then turn around and remember it was thirsty and take a drink.  Yikes!  He just infected himself.

Just in case you are interested in the life cycle of these little pests, the next section will describe it briefly.  Feel free to skip it if you are just interested in symptoms and treatment.

Life Cycle of Coccidia

The life cycle of the Coccidia is quite complicated. The dog or puppy becomes infected when it ingests “oocysts” that have been passed in the feces of another dog.  Then the oocyst becomes enclosed in a cyst in the host’s small intestine. From here little sporozoites within the oocyte are freed and begin to embed themselves into the small intestines and reproduce.

Each new generation invades other cells causing massive destruction of the cells in the small intestine. From here they transform and eventually become new oocytes that are passed through the body and out in the feces.  At this point, the oocyte is not infected. 

Once liberated from the host’s body, though it will become infective and if swallowed by a new host, begins its lifecycle all over again.  These oocytes are resistant to adverse environmental conditions and can survive as long as one year in moist, protected environments if they are not exposed to freezing or extremely high temperatures. There are scientific terms for each phase of the life cycle but I will spare you the details. 


Symptoms of Coccidia

  • Foul Smelling Diarrhea, with or without mucus or blood
  • Vomiting sometimes
  • Dehydration
  • Loss of appetite

It is not uncommon for adult dogs to carry the protozoan in their intestinal tracts without ever showing signs of the disease.  If the oocytes are found in the stool of a dog without diarrhea, they are generally considered transient, and are not treated.

Most adults who have come in contact with Coccidia at some point in their life have built up personal immunity.  Even though the adult dog doesn’t show any symptoms, they can still infect others. 

A very common scenario is when a mother passes on the Coccidia to her puppies. However, puppies can pick up the disease in other ways.   Any dog that comes into contact with contaminated soil, food or water can get Coccidiosis, but it is usually stress that brings on the symptoms.

 Anything that is stressful to the puppy or dog can bring it on:changes in weather, weaning,move to a new home,plane ride, new owners, you name it.

This is why Coccidiosis is frequently referred to as an opportunist disease.  The highest incidence of Coccidiosis is found in dogs and puppies in the first 21 days after having changed owners and moved to a new home. 

A good rule of thumb to consider is if your new puppy shows signs of diarrhea within the first 2 weeks of coming home, he probably became infected at the breeder’s home. 

If it has been more than two weeks, it might indicate that he contracted the disease from your property or a place where he has been, either on a walk in the park, a neighbor or friend’s house, or any other place where he might have come in contact with contaminated ground.

In mild cases, you might not see any symptoms, but usually diarrhea is the most common indicator that something is happening.  Diarrhea can also contain mucus and even blood.  More severely infected puppies have a watery foul smelling stool with blood and this can cause rapid dehydration, weight loss and the puppy stops eating.  Vomiting call also occur. 

In very severe cases the nervous system can be affected and the puppy might have muscle tremors, and convulsions.  Death can occur in very severe cases that have not been treated but the majority of cases can be treated easily and successfully. 

How is Coccidiosis Diagnosed?

There are two ways that veterinarians diagnose the disease; producing a positive fecal sample is the most obvious, but vets often rely on the symptoms presented by the patient.  Veterinary clinics will request a fecal sample, prepare it and view it under a microscope for the presence of cells. 

It is likely that a negative stool sample cannot rule out the possibility of Coccidia because the Coccidia may not be shed in every stool sample.  If a new puppy presents to the veterinarian with symptoms of diarrhea, anorexia (not eating) and the owner states that she just got the pup a week ago, it is a pretty good indication that the problem could be Coccidia.

How is Coccidiosis Treated?

Coccidiosis is treated with drugs and supportive treatment such as fluids if necessary.  The most common drugs used are sulfadimethoxine as found in Albon®, Bactrovet® or Tribrissen®.  Albon has a custard-like flavor that appears to be very pleasant for puppies but the downside is that it must be administered for 10 days.  Albon does not actually kill the Coccidia but rather interferes with the life cycle making it impossible for them to reproduce.

Once the Coccidia are under control, the host’s immune system takes over and cures the animal.

Newer treatments, such as the equine drug Ponazuril (Marquis) are gaining popularity to treat Coccidia, but are not currently licensed for use in dogs and cats. Ponazuril® has the advantage of a shorter course of therapy because it actually kills the protozoan directly.

Treat the Environment

In addition to treating the dog, it is very important to treat the environment. Picking up the poop is only the first step but a very important step. 

Using a good disinfectant is very important to eliminate even more of the threat.  Disinfectants containing quaternary ammonium or bleach can be effective. Bleach should be diluted at one cup per gallon of water. These chemicals are good for areas that can be cleaned with them, but do not try to use them on a grassy area because it will kill the grass. 

Household ammonia products can destroy oocysts, but you must remove the dog or puppy from the area so they are not affected by harmful odors.Another method that is highly effective is cleaning at high temperatures with steam cleaners or boiling water. 

Clean all of your puppy’s toys in very hot or boiling water or place in the dishwasher.  All blankets and bedding should be washed with bleach using hot water .

Other Things to Do

  • Bathe the dog to be sure there is no fecal matter on his hair.
  • Wipe off paws when dog returns to the house
  • Remove feces immediately
  • Discourage puppies from eating poop (coprophagia)
  • Provide a high quality diet
  • Keep water bowls clean and provide fresh clean water

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