Although often not well known by dog owners, Coccidia and Giardia are potentially fatal conditions that can occur within virtually any puppy or dog, regardless of their current health, age or condition. Both disease conditions are most problematic for puppies and dogs that have any types of health issues affecting their immune systems, which often allow the parasites to multiply out of control within the dog's body.
Coccidia are a group of very common, one celled type of protazoans that are found in the intestinal tract of many different kinds of animals. The most common Coccidia found in dogs are Isospora canis and Isospora ohioensis, although other species of Coccidia do occasionally occur in canines. In reality it isn't important to know exactly which species your dog is infected with as treatment, symptoms and diagnosis will be the same regardless of the species.
Although the very young puppies, typically those under six months and over two weeks of age, are at the greatest risk for developing Coccidia infestations any dog that is under stress can also develop symptoms that will require treatment. This includes dogs that have been moved, rehomed, have other diseases or are pregnant or nursing. Any dogs that have immune problems either through genetic or inherited conditions or through a disease are also at greater risk of developing serious consequences from infection with the parasite.
Generally puppies develop Coccidia from eating the feces of the mother dog if she has the parasite. Once ingested it takes about 14 days for the symptoms to become obvious in the puppy, however by this time it has likely spread to the rest of the litter from contact either with the mother's feces or the infected puppies waste. It is extremely easily spread and since puppies have no natural defenses against the parasite they are most at risk. Dogs in kennels, shelters and running with other dogs are also at high risk, especially if they are stressed or their immune systems are not properly functioning.
There are different degrees of coccidiosis noted in puppies and dogs ranging from mild to very severe. Even mild cases, if coupled with other internal parasites or disease can rapidly become very serious and lead to death. In most puppies, especially those healthy otherwise, the major symptoms will be bloody diarrhea, mucus in the feces, vomiting, dehydration and if left untreated, death. When the symptoms are noticeable, there is a need to confirm the diagnosis with your vet and treat immediately. Puppies that are showing symptoms will not recover on their own and will continue to be carriers, re-infecting littermates and other dogs.
Treatment is usually very effective providing it is started before the overall health of the puppy or dog becomes compromised. The treatment is not a one time treatment. It will usually require one to three weeks of medications that prevent the parasite from reproducing, while at the same time allowing the puppy to recover and develop natural antibodies that will kill the surviving adults. The reason that the adult Coccidia cannot be killed is that the dosage required to kill the adult would also kill the puppy, so lesser dosages that just sterilize the adults will eventually lead to elimination of the parasite from the puppy or dog's body.
Since Coccidia is so contagious and easily spread it is important to maintain the cleanest possible environment for puppies and dogs, especially when kenneled or in confined spaces. Ensure that food and water dishes are protected from contamination by fecal material, plus keep any insects, mice or rodents away from kennel areas or whelping areas. This vermin and insects can carry the protazoans into the puppy's environment and then either be eaten by the mother or the puppies, resulting in infections.
Giardia, also known as Giardia canis, is another microscopic internal parasite that is a singe celled protozoan. Unlike Coccidia, there are still a lot of issues that are unknown about Giardia, including the exact lifecycle, the number of species and even how widespread the parasite actually is. It is a condition that is almost exclusively seen in very young puppies, often those that already have immune system deficiencies or are in poor health conditions due to other diseases and parasite infections.
Infection with Giardia is known as giardiasis, and it considered to be relatively uncommon by most vets and canine health researchers. What researchers do know is that Giardia gets into the puppy's system through the puppy ingesting the cysts from another infected animal, likely in the feces. The cyst then breaks open in the small intestine, releasing large numbers of immature Giardia known as trophozoites. These organisms have tails and can swim, which they do to get to the walls of the intestines where they latch on and begin to divide. At some unknown point the dividing Giardia excrete a hard shell like cyst covering and let go of the intestine walls, exiting the puppy in the feces where they remain until ingested again.
Giardiasis is hard to diagnose since the symptoms can come and go and may be mild to acute at different times. Diarrhea that is very pale, has a horrible odor and appears oily or greasy is the most common symptom, but not all puppies exhibit this condition. The puppy may also lose weight and the coat will appear dull and poor since the Giardia are actually absorbing the nutrition from the food before the puppy is able to use it.
Treatment of giardiasis is controversial both with regards to when to treat as well as how to treat. Most vets suggest treating if the parasite is confirmed in the fecal examination while others recommend treating only if there is a health issue. The medications used are anti-parasitic drugs such as Fenbendazole, often in combination with Metronidazole to kill bacteria. This combination is considered to be relatively effective, however Metronidazole can have serious health risks to sensitive puppies and cannot be used with pregnant dogs due to the chance of birth defects.
As with all parasites keeping the area as clean as possible and preventing puppies from getting into any fecal material is critical. Since Giardia cysts can live for several months in the cyst form, be sure to clean, disinfect and wash all bedding and whelping areas on a regular basis.