Coccidiosis in Dogs

Coccidia can be the bane of some kennels’ existence. This parasitic organism is present wherever dogs are found globally. It can be completely silent, or it can cause severe illness, especially for our most precious population: young puppies. Did you know that puppies are affected the most when they are exposed to stress like weaning or moving into a new home? It’s nearly impossible to eliminate coccidia from a kennel, and worse still, diagnosis of the parasite in a kennel can come along with a nasty stigma among breeders and pet owners alike!
To understand how to win a war with coccidia, we need to know our enemy.
Canine coccidia (now known as cystoisospora) are small protozoan parasites. They reproduce in the cells that line the intestine…you know, the ones that absorb all the nutrients and protect your dog from pathogens! And when the new offspring emerge from those cells, they destroy them. This damage to the intestinal lining is what causes the symptoms of coccidiosis that we all know and (don’t) love: diarrhea, weight loss, dehydration, appetite loss, and poor growth, among other things.
Coccidia is common in the dog population, with incidence ranging between 3-38%* of North American dogs. On top of this, infective coccidia oocysts can live in the environment for up to a year and are resistant to most common disinfectants. Clinically healthy dogs can shed coccidia oocysts in their feces, therefore sneaking it into a previously untouched kennel. Our pets and breeding stock can contract this parasite in two ways: by ingesting infective oocysts in the environment, and by eating encysted coccidia in raw meat (food or prey species). 
Here are a few more facts about coccidia that can help us to create our battle plan:
  • Dogs can have coccidia for up to 23 days before it is detectable in fecal tests.
  • Dogs can’t get disease-causing coccidia from the stool of other species.
  • Coccidia sporulate (change from non-infective to infective stages) in the environment between 20 and 40 degrees Celsius and are destroyed by freezing and extreme heat.
  • Sporulation happens fast:  in less than 16 hours. This is the timeframe you’re working with to remove feces from the environment and minimize contamination.
  • Young, stressed animals are more likely to get sick, and to shed coccidia in their stool.
So, here’s how we can fight coccidia the smart way:
  1. Accept that coccidia cases, even repeat ones, do not mean you run a crummy kennel. We all live in the same imperfect environment.
  2. Focus on Air(dale) Traffic Control—young and/or stressed individuals are more likely to shed coccidia. Keep boarders and new additions in separate social groups, and on separate surfaces.
  3. Fecal test new additions on entry, and at the 3-4 week mark to identify late shedders.
  4. When meds are needed, consider treating positive individuals AND their contacts.
  5. Remove any feces from the environment as quickly as possible…ideally in under 12 hours.
  6. Prevent raw meat ingestion by offering cooked diets and preventing predatory activities.
  7. Reduce porous surfaces in your space by painting or sealing your kennel floors.
  8. Power or steam wash surfaces to remove as much fecal matter as possible.
  9. If necessary, remove animals from your facility temporarily for concentrated ammonia cleaning.
  10. Reduce puppy stress as much as possible through good husbandry, smart weaning timelines, and most importantly, adopter education.
With these tips, you can use your knowledge of coccidia and its life cycle to limit this parasite’s ability to cause illness in your dogs.
* Gates MC, Nolan TJ. 2009. Endoparasite prevalence and recurrence across different age groups of dogs and cats. Veterinary Parasitology. 166: 153-158.
Dr. Jennifer Sperry