What is coccidia and how do dogs and puppies acquire this illness? Well we recently had a break in our parasite-free 8-years-running streak o’ good health. Very sad to say it, alas a lovely dog placed in a guardian home came back to me with roundworms, tapeworms, coccidia and I suspect giardia too because there were water fowl on the property. And hey, why shouldn’t giardia join the party? This poor dog had every other parasite known to man. She even came back to me with several ticks attached and a nasty flea infestation (which is where the tapeworms came from. But I digress).
It is very disappointing and one reason why I don’t think guardian homes are necessarily the best way to run a breeding program. But that’s a different post entirely.
Coccidia is a disgusting little protozoa. This single-celled organism travels to your dog’s intestines after being ingested and sets up shop. Coccidia affects many species of animal including humans! Thankfully the coccidia that affect each species is a different variety of coccidia entirely. So your pet birds can’t get the dog cocci and your dogs and cats are very unlikely to share cocci infections and your children are unlikely to get the dog’s cocci. So hurray for that!! Toxoplasmosis is one type of coccidia infection that lives in cats. Felines are the normal host reservoir for this dangerous protozoa and one reason why I really detest my neighbors that allow their cats to run wild all over the neighborhood (and my property). Toxoplasmosis will cross a placenta and injure or kill baby creatures growing therein to include puppies and human babies. This is also a nasty infection that will make both humans and dogs rather ill and will very quickly kill a litter of puppies. I’m crossing my fingers that I never run into this one but fortunately it is pretty rare in dogs.
The dog-common cocci parasite is not very dangerous but it is rather difficult to get rid of. It is sometimes called “raccoon fever” as one main host reservoir species in the wild raccoon. So there ya go. Racoon poop. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
How does a dog or puppy get infected?
Dogs become infected with this parasite by eating disgusting, dead animals or by eating the poop of disgusting dead animals. Rule number one for avoiding illness is always “don’t eat poo”. I joke but really it is so true. Poo eating results in illness. Avoid doing it and don’t allow your canine pal to do it either. Poo… is not ‘what’s for dinner’!
One really good way to avoid your dog eating poop or dead animals is to remove all poop that you find on your property. The same can be said for dead animals. Keep carrion and poop out of your yard and walkways. This seems like a “duh” but believe me, I’ve seen it, people let gross happen and never underestimate the power of lazy in people.
Another good way to prevent poo or carrion-eating in dogs is to ensure your dog is well fed (not half starved) and is being fed a really high-quality, high-protein diet. Many kibbles are very low in quality (even if the bag tells you otherwise) and dogs may feel the need to eat poop to get nutrients they are missing. I also think that it says something to the quality of flavor of your dog food in your dog is voluntarily eating crap 😉
Coprophagia (or the eating of one’s own poop) is a very undesirable and dangerous behavior for dogs (well probably for anyone other than rabbits who need to eat their own poop to be healthy). To learn more about it click the link.
Coccidia does not pass from an infected mother to her young via milk like roundworms or across the little placentas that filter all the blood supply to tiny developing pups. So how do puppies acquire this illness? They have to come in contact with and consume some of an infected dog’s poo. (Remember that first rule?)
You will see coccidia present in poorly bred and kept puppy litters nearly 100% of the time. This is because the litter boxes and the dams are not cleaned very often at all and when they are the cleaning is not very thorough. Alas coccidia can also worm its way into the tummies of well-kept, very clean litters as well. Which is very annoying.
My mother dogs are house-trained. So unlike many kennel breeders’ dams, my mother dogs are allowed free access to their puppies and may come and go into the whelping/nursery area as they please (they are not trapped in a locked wire crate or cage with their puppies because I think that is horrible). My girls are not ever eliminating their waste (poop or pee) anywhere remotely near their babies as they are not forced to and their urge not to do so is incredibly strong. So how the heck did puppies pop up with this illness?
For starters I begin outdoor house training at about 4 weeks of age. Even though I pick up adult poop relatively quickly (often immediately) the nasty little protozoa shed their eggs and they can live in the grass for up to 2 years! So if the puppies romped through any area where an infected dog pooped previously, even though it is cleaned up, the puppies’ feet could pick up an isospora oocyte (fancy words that mean nasty disgusting protozoan eggs). Puppies later groom themselves and one another as well as step all over each other and often into their food and water dishes at feeding time as well.
Mom might also walk through her own poop after “going”. Hey give mom a break! She may have just whelped 8 babies! If I gave birth to 8 babies at once I’d be happy if I could get up to go poop all by myself at all. Ha!
So if mom steps in it and then walks back into her box even the most microscopic (and therefore not visible or smell-able by me) can infect one or several of her puppies.
Dogs that go to dog shows, kennels to board, events, fairs, beaches, dog parks or even just going to the veterinarian can pick up this nasty little protozoa on their paws and later groom themselves and acquire the infection.
Oh poo. It’s a coccidia infection. No, literally. Poo. Coccidia can cause nasty foul-smelling diarrhea in puppies. Can. Doesn’t mean that it will. So a sneaky infection can be present without anyone detecting its presence.
Coccidia can present with soft-pudding like puppy poop, watery poop, foul-smelling or strong-smelling poop, and even vomiting. Or as often is the case no symptoms may be present at all.
Puppies often have soft stool as they are weaning and making the transition from milk to dog food so it is very easy to miss an infection and often mama dogs have loose or off stool from changing hormone levels, cleaning up after puppies because I wasn’t fast enough, eating afterbirth or just about anything you can think of. So therefore it is incredibly easy to mistake coccidia infection symptoms with normal new-puppy or new-mama adjustments, to include soft poop from a stressed puppy that just came home with you.
In healthy, fat, well-fed and well-bred puppies these common puppy parasites pose very little health risk. Many puppies that have coccidia are never even diagnosed as often the eggs aren’t present in the small sampling of stool at the vet even if the pup has the parasite (this is true for all “worms” too!) The main concern with infection is dehydration due to diarrhea. A long lasting infection of some parasites can cause anemia but coccidia is really fairly mild and not of much concern.
Most puppies simply “outgrow” the infection. Their bodies become mature and strong enough to fight off the infection successfully. They keep the infection at bay, so to speak. But the protozoa still inhabits the dog’s digestive tract. And as a result an otherwise healthy dog becomes a “carrier” of the disease and sheds viable oocytes (eggs) everywhere they poop. Even if their poop is immediately cleaned up it contaminates the soil and waits for its next hapless victim. And then in times of stress, illness or other poor health the coccidia infection (which is still there) blooms and causes an active, nasty infection in your poor dog that seemed otherwise quite parasite-free.
This is why you see/read puppy-sellers telling you that stress can cause diarrhea in dogs and puppies. You see while stress can cause diarrhea in really severe cases (or really nervous, anxious and poorly socialized puppies) it is a whole lot more likely that the diarrhea is being caused by a parasite getting a good bloom in due to a run down, stressed out puppy or dog. Stress doesn’t “cause” coccidia as many puppy-hawkers claim. Coccidia causes coccidia infections. Stress just makes the immune system lower and nasty (already present) infections take advantage of that because that is what filthy parasites do. They kick you when you’re down and free-load.
If you can’t tell by now I really hate parasites. They are disgusting and really hard to eradicate. I was very happy with my parasite-free status and am super bummed out that I now have to add chemicals and poisons into my dog and puppy care plan. But it is what it is I suppose and now I will be treating for coccidia and other nasty, disgusting miserable little parasites on a regular schedule for a good 3 years in hopes to eradicate the little jerks.
Coccidia is treated by your local vet with an antibiotic called Albon. Coccidia isn’t a bacterial infection so why treatment with an antibiotic, you ask? Well the Albon is what is called a sulfa-drug. It messes up the reproduction ability of single celled organisms like bacteria and coccidia by preventing the folic acid use (or something science-y like that). After screwing up the RNA in these little buggers they are unable to reproduce and therefore cannot continue their life-cycle in their host (your adorable dog).
Now that doesn’t actually kill the protozoa or the protozoan eggs that are present in your dog or in your dog’s immediate environment (wherever your dog may have shed or tracked ooctyes). It just neuters them so to speak. Just the ones currently living in the dog. They are eventually killed by the immune system of the dog or passed in the poop or die of their own accord and the infection clears up. Because the protozoa have to be killed by the body and not by the medication treatment is a long time (relatively speaking). It takes about 10 days and in some (often severe) cases there needs to be re-treatment in 2 weeks’ time. The treatment with the Albon does seem to reduce symptoms like diarrhea however and certainly shortens the normal length of time there is an infection present. If you treat with Albon (vs not treating at all) you have a far lower risk of your dog being a host carrier of the nasty parasite and having flare-ups or “blooms” later in life. So if you’ve got cocci please have it treated.
There are no proven holistic or alternative or “natural” methods or drugs or herbal remedies available that have any worthwhile effect on coccidia and most other puppy parasites. I am truly all for natural treatment and I really avoid chemicals where and how I can in my kids and dogs but this is one of those areas where you really just have to treat (or treat to prevent) with medication.
Some strains of coccidia are thought to be resistant to the Albon (which is a bad thing of course) so why isn’t there some other medication that can actually kill the darn parasite?
There is. It is called “Baycox” but the FDA won’t allow it for sale in the United States. This is a drug that is very commonly used in other excellent and well educated first world countries so why we have to deal with slow, expensive and antibiotic treatments like Albon I really don’t know. But I try not to question the pharmaceutical industry as they’re all about politics, money and nothing good.
Baycox is available for sale in countries like Australia and breeders and many large animal veterinarians import the drug and use it on their animals. Baycox kills all life stages of coccidia but it cannot penetrate an actual egg. Therefore it is best to treat in the first 13 days after initial exposure to cocci in order to completely eradicate it before it has any chance to produce nasty little lingering eggs.
If the coccidia isn’t caught until after oocytes are present then simply treat with the correct dosage of Baycox and then in 13 days treat again with the correct dosage of Baycox. Voila. Parasite destroyed. Protozoa: 0; Dog and Master: 1.
It is important to use the Baycox formulated for piglets. There is another that is formulated for chickens and poultry and is meant to be added to water. Use the piglet solution. Baycox is made by Bayer and is very safe and effective. Some veterinarians will prescribe off-label use of the drug but many veterinarians do not stay up-to-speed on things and may not have any clue whatsoever what the hell ‘Baycox’ even is at all. So if you see Baycox on the health record of a puppy be prepared for the vet to give you the one-eyebrow-up at your wellness exam.
So there you have it; extremely expensive imported Australian medication made by Bayer (an American company) that is really useful and safe for treating all kinds of nasty coccidia infections in animals is the drug of choice for puppy breeders and dog owners, showers, trainers and workers. Albon is less effective and available at your local veterinarian and requires consistent dosage so stay on top of that and your dog will conquer the cocci infection and hopefully build up a good, strong immune system that will beat it off the next time it comes a-callin’.
And remember guys; Rule number one: Don’t Eat Poo!
**And of course here I have to state and use the disclaimer that you expect to see: I am not a veterinarian and this article is for information purposes only and is not meant to diagnose, treat or cure any animal or human of any possible type of condition. If you suspect your dog, child, hamster or grandma may have an illness please consult with the proper professional for the job with a proper PhD. I am not the proper professional for the job, nor do I claim to be. So if anyone kills or injures or hurts their dog (or grandma) by properly or improperly applying anything they have read herein it is completely not my responsibility (please do not sue me). Thank you for taking the time to read my disclaimer. If you’re on this page then you read this disclaimer. Capiche? 😉 I live in NJ and I’m Italian so I totally get to say that, right?**