Coccidia and Coccidiosis
Coccidia/Coccidiosis: The category of Coccidia includes the subspecies Isospora, Eimeria, Sarcocystis, Besnoitia, Cryptosproidium, Nospora, Hammondia, and Hepatazoa.
Above is a picture of Coccidia we can see under a microscope after doing a fresh fecal floatation. The eggs have sporulated (divided) so we know the fecal sample is over 24 hours old.
Coccidia are microscopic, spore-forming, single-celled protozoal parasites living in the small intestine of the genus Isospora , detectable only under a microscope. Coccidia are obligate, intracellular parasites, which means that they must live and reproduce within an animal or bird’s cell. Coccidia is one of the most prevalent protozoal infections in North American animals, second only to Giardia.
Sexually mature Coccidia living in the host animal’s intestines mate and release oocysts, the first stage in this lifecycle for this protozoan, which get passed through with the feces. They then mature into infectious oocysts by sporulating. Canines, coyotes and wolves can all pick up this parasite simply from licking a contaminated area or by eating other smaller animals that have been infected. Once the new host has picked up the infectious oocysts, they make their way back into the intestine where they open up into eight sporozoites. Each sporozoite burrows into an intestinal cell and reproduces until the cell bursts releasing merozoites (juvenile Coccidia). These merozoites then find their own intestinal cells to burrow into, mature there and start the cycle over.
Oocysts can survive many weeks in the soil outdoors – as long as 600 days. The optimum temperature for sporulation is around 72°F. The rate of sporulation is slower if temperatures are much cooler or hotter. Oocysts are killed either by freezing or very high temperatures. Sporulation also requires oxygen and moisture (at least 20 percent moisture) Once sporulated, the oocyst remains infective for months if protected from very hot, dry, or freezing conditions.
Coccidiosis is the disease caused by Coccidia. The disease spreads from one animal to another by contact with infected feces or ingestion of infected tissue.
Coccidian species can infect a wide variety of animals including our pets, livestock and humans. Coccidia is usually species specific which means that our contact with a Coccidia which comes from an animal won’t infect us. So, the species infecting dogs will not affect humans. The exception to this is with Toxoplasma, another Coccidia species, which comes from cats.
Stress causes the disease to be symptomatic. Some big stressors in a pets life include having an undeveloped immune system (young living things such as animals and children take time to develop an immune system), new owners, travel, weather changes, unsanitary conditions and overcrowding.
Symptoms of Coccidiosis include uncontrollable, loose, watery stools which may also have thick mucus and light-color. Occasional spots of blood may also be evident. It is easily spread, so one can only assume if one new puppy in the litter has the disease, all the puppies from that litter have it. Be kind and notify the breeder or place where you obtained your pet if it is diagnosed with this parasite so they can treat the rest of the litter and the mother. Because of the loss of water, dehydration may also be noticeable.
“Nervous Coccidiosis” is a nervous system condition associated with Coccidial infection. Signs are consistent with central nervous system involvement and include muscle tremors, convulsions and other central nervous system symptoms. A consistent sign in “nervous cocci” dogs is that stimulation of any type seems to trigger the symptoms. Death may follow the acute disease either directly or from secondary diseases such as pneumonia. Animals that survive for 10 to 14 days may recover, however, permanent damage may occur. Research has indicated that canines may experience reduced food consumption for up to 13 weeks following clinical infection.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Coccidiosis: Diagnosing Coccidia is not easy. Diagnosis can be done with a fresh fecal sample (or several samples), but even when a flare is at its worst, the oocysts may not be shedding in every single stool. Therefore, a negative report does not rule out Coccidia. Sulfa drugs act as coccidiostats. Statin drugs do not kill the parasite, but it keep it from reproducing until the immune system can kick in an overcome the disease. Antibiotics may also be needed for secondary bacterial infections.
Treatments for Coccidia: Some drugs used to treat Coccidia include Amprolium, Ionophores, Nicarbizone, Quinolones and Sulfa drugs which include Albon®, Bactrovet®, or Tribrissen® in the veterinary arena. Anything that improves the overall health of the gut can help reduce the impact of Coccidiosis. Also, a population of beneficial bacteria is always better than pathogenic bacteria, since Coccidia weaken the gut wall, and bacteria may pass through.
Prevention of Coccidiosis: The chance for Coccidia infection can be reduced by maintaining hygiene in and around your home. Properly dispose of feces to keep grounds from being contaminated, wash hands regularly and keep your dog clean. Don’t take your dog to unsanitary dog parks and make sure any meat your dog eats is well cooked. Keep kennels clean and dry. Because this parasite is a protozoan, an adult dog’s own immune system may be enough to defend itself.
Producers of chickens and other livestock sometimes give diatomaceous earth (DE) to their animals or birds in the belief that the sharp edges of the fossilized diatoms will damage the parasites and reduce Coccidiosis. This product is discussed under the products section.