I am pretty sure the term « Coccidia » does ring a bell if you breed dogs or cats. Indeed, hardly a day goes by without me seeing it mentioned on a breeders’ forum. Very often, the tone sounds alarming. « What should I do ? », « How do I prevent this in my kennel / cattery ? », «  What is the best drug to deal with it? ».

Generally speaking, I am under the impression that this parasite scares people out. Sure, it is one of those enemies you do not want to see in your kennel or cattery. It can be a threat. Eventually… But should we be afraid ? I believe this is essentially fear of the unknown. Knowledge : that is THE way to fight it.

That’s why I started writing this series. You will find there a list of fact breeders should know when it comes down to coccidia. Because knowledge is power. And when you know, you are not afraid. Because you are prepared.

#1 Coccidia are unicellular digestive parasites. They are tiny little bugs (we call them protozoa) that, unlike worms, you cannot see with your own eyes in your animal’s feces.

#2 The term « Coccidia » in fact refers to a larger family of parasites. Some of its members are quite “famous” so to say and you certainly have heard of them: Toxoplasma spNeospora sp, and Cryptosporidium sp ; there are others like Hammondia sp, Besnoitia sp and Sarcocystis sp. And there is Isospora sp..

#3 Isospora sp are the ones that interest us here : when you hear about « coccidia » in dogs & cats, this is usually the ones that are referred to. So don’t freak out if you hear somebody – like me ! – mentioning  Isospora. This is no new bug ! Just a synonymous.

#4 Coccidia / Isospora (!) are species-specific : the ones that infect cats will not infect dogs, and vice-versa.

#5 We use a single term, but there are in fact several Isospora species :

– 4 of them infect dogs : Isospora canis, Isospora ohioensis, Isospora burrowsi and Isospora neorivolta

– 2 of them infect cats : Isospora felis and Isosposra rivolta

One generic name for 6 different pathogens !

#6 Why is this important ? Because they don’t infect the same type of individuals !

#7 Isospora canis & Isospora felis usually infect puppies and kittens at weaning…

#8 … while the others will usually affect neonates !

#9 Coccidia are identified by fecal flotation (aka « fecal test »). None of the PCR panels (=DNA tests performed on stools and very often used in clinics) will screen for them to date.

#10 Dogs and cats harbouring coccidia will shed structures called « oocysts » in their feces. These oocysts will infect the animals that ingest them.

Fig 1: Different kind of diarrhea : all could be caused by coccidia, you can’t just tell just based on the aspect of the stools !

#5 Keep in min that, although rare, respiratory and neurologic signs have also been reported in certain animals suffering from coccidia infection.

#6 If you remember our first post, we discussed the fact that there were in fact two kinds of coccidia : some affect newborns while others affect weaning puppies & kittens. Obviously, clinical signs related to coccidia infection are more apparent and eventually more severe in newborns.

#7 One important thing to keep in mind in my opinion as well : presence of coccidia does NOT systematically mean diarrhea. Oocysts can be found in the feces of many clinically normal young dogs and cats.

#8 In fact, up to 38% of dogs and 36% of cats are positive for coccidia cysts. When we look at it from a kennel or a cattery perspective, we can assume that coccidia cysts can be found in nearly 100% of these structures.

#9 An interesting point : did you know that the clinical significance of the disease has in fact not been clearly established ? Coccidia infection might indeed turn symptomatic when coccidia are associated with a concurrent infection, like cryptosporidiosis, coronavirosis, parvovirosis and/or candidiasis. That reinforces the importance of looking for a definitive diagnosis.

#1 Coccidia infection tends to be a problem in unsanitary environments. Key words here : SANITATION, HYGIENE, CLEANING, DISINFECTING. These concepts are critical in kennels and catteries. And unfortunately, often overlooked. To avoid mistakes, a fundamental concept to understand is the difference between CLEANING & DISINFECTING : read more about it here.

#2 To further highlight this point : experimental studies have shown that diarrhea is uncommon unless large numbers of oocysts (remember, the resistant form excreted by affected dogs and cats in the environment) are absorbed by very young or immunusuppressed individuals.

#3 Coccidia cysts need to spend a certain amount of time in the environment (it might vary depending on temperature and humidity, but typically 5-8 days) before turning infectant. An easy tip to break the cycle ? On a daily basis, scoop the poop. That is definitely the cornerstone of your kennel / cattery protection plan !

#4 Picking up the stools is always the first step of the cleaning – disinfecting protocol. However, it should not stop here. After that, cleaning – you probably don’t see it, but there are things remaining ! – and THEN disinfecting will also need to be performed.

#5 And here is something important to know : coccidia cysts are TOUGH. Many « classic » disinfectants (like bleach & quaternary ammoniums) will NOT be efficient. Check our table here.

#6 We just wrote it : bleach – often used for disinfection in kennels and catteries – is not efficient to destroy coccidia cysts. But it’s even worse… There are some evidence that bleach can accelerate the sporulation time of the coccidia cysts (understand they become infectant faster than expected). That is why in case of confirmed coccidia infection, it is ALWAYS important to revisit the sanitation protocole of your structure.

#7 What can we use then to destroy coccidia cysts these days ? Our recommended option : steam cleaning. Above +70 °C, coccidia cysts will rupture. Water that comes out of many steam cleaners is around +220 °C. By the way, it will also be efficient for other protozoan cysts, like Giardia or Cryptosporidium.

#8 Runs, cage, food ustensils and other implements should be disinfected by steam cleaning. In fact, anything that is soiled by organic matter should be disinfected.

#9 Infections are frequently found in catteries or kennels where animals congregate. The solution ? SECTORIZATION ! Do not mix all your animals together and try to separate them according to their specific lifestage. Kittens and puppies around weaning, which are particularily at risk, should not be mixed with animals from other physiological stages.

#10 Insect control is essential in animal quarters and food storage areas because cockroaches and flies may serve as mechanical vectors of oocysts. Same thing applies to rodents’ control : cats and dogs are indeed infected by ingestion of sporulated oocysts, but also by the consumption of transport hosts (often rodents).

#11 Coccidia cysts are resistant in the outside environment… which means that dogs and cats can also carry them on their coats ! This is a potential source of recontamination ! In affected kennels, bathing the dogs on a weekly basis to mechanically remove the cysts is a measure we often recommend. In catteries, the same can be attempted… providing the cats are ok to cooperate !