A cat with diarrhea may have coccidia, a potentially nasty and dangerous parasite. Find out what coccidia in cats looks like, what it can do, and how to get rid of it.
WHAT ARE COCCIDIA
Coccidia are a group of microscopic parasites that can cause a disease called coccidiosis in kittens and cats.
Symptoms: Symptoms include watery stool with mucus or blood, fever, and, in some cats, neurological problems such as depression or convulsions.
About a third of all cats in the U.S. already have coccidia, but most infected cats never develop symptoms. Asymptomatic cats are not generally thought to be in peril from the parasite, unless their immune symptoms are compromised in other ways (including stress). If so, they may also begin to show signs of coccidiosis.
Very young, very old, sick, or stressed cats are the most susceptible, but all cats who carry the parasite are contagious.
Prognosis: Cats can die from the disease, though many recover with treatment.
IS COCCIDIA IN CATS CONTAGIOUS TO HUMANS AND OTHER PETS?
The short answer is yes, but it’s unlikely.
Dogs, humans, and other animals do have their own forms of coccidia, but most coccidians are very host-specific. That is, most coccidia species that live in cats can’t live in dogs or humans, and vice versa.
- Toxoplasmosis: There are exceptions to the rule — there are a few coccidia parasites that can infect cats, humans, and dogs. The most common, Toxoplasma, causes toxoplasmosis, a disease that’s especially dangerous for pregnant women.
- How Are Coccidia Spread Among Humans? Most human cases of toxoplasmosis come from contact with contaminated soil, water, or food, not from cats. Still, it’s important to use good hygiene around cats and cat feces, especially if a cat’s coccidia status is unknown.
- How Are Coccidia Spread From Cats to Dogs? If your dog has a tendency to get into the kitty litter to play with or eat cat feces (ick!), do all you can to discourage this behavior.
HOW DO CATS GET COCCIDIA IN THE FIRST PLACE?
Cats can catch coccidia the same way humans do: from contact with feces or by eating infected animals, such as rodents.
Contact with feces need not be direct, since one cat can easily track the microscopic spores out of the litter box, and all over the house, to infect others.
Kittens frequently get the parasite from contact with their mother’s bodies while nursing. Infected kittens less than six months old almost always get sick, since their immune systems are immature. Coccidia are also frequently passed among cats at shelters.
Some forms of coccidia, such as Toxoplasma, use rodents as alternate hosts, so cats get infected by eating them.
Creepy fact: Toxoplasmosa gets itself back inside a cat by altering the rat’s sexual response. Some rats who are infected will approach cats, rather than avoid them, because the parasite makes them mistake a cat’s scent for rat sex pheromones. These rats are more likely to be eaten by cats — mission accomplished for the parasite.
HOW CAN I PROTECT MY CAT AND HOME FROM COCCIDIA?
It is not possible to completely protect against coccidia, since coccidia spores can live for more than a year, and are almost impossible to kill. Most disinfectants don’t work, and the ones that do kill the parasite can unfortunately be toxic to cats as well.
If your cat is pregnant, have her tested before she gives birth so you can protect her kittens.
Coccidia eggs are not infectious until they form spores hours or days after leaving the cat. Frequent litter box changes and excellent hygiene help prevent the spread of the parasite, especially in shelters or catteries.
Cats infected with coccidia should be isolated from other animals during treatment, and their boxes should be kept very clean.
Once cats are treated and recover from coccidia, they often re-infect themselves from spores left over inside the house.
WHAT CAN I DO IF MY CAT HAS COCCIDOSIS?
If you suspect your cat has coccidiosis, go to the vet. Coccidia eggs are very small and do not show up on fecal tests designed for worm eggs, so make sure your vet knows you suspect coccidia. Infected cats don’t always shed eggs, so false negatives are possible. Coccidia can also sometimes show up in blood tests.
Sulfa drugs are the primary treatment for coccidia infection, though there are other options as well. Your cat may also require treatment for dehydration.
Since adult cats rarely show coccidiosis symptoms unless they are ill or stressed, you may have an underlying health problem to deal with as well.
WHAT IS THE PROGNOSIS FOR CATS AFFECTED BY COCCIDIA?
The majority of cats who have been treated with antibiotics will fully recover their health. However, total immunity after infection and treatment is unlikely. Most adult cats who have been affected will become carriers of the organism, which they can spread through their own feces. For this reason, especially clean litter boxes are important. Nevertheless, even adult carriers of coccidia can live symptom-free, and remain healthy in all other aspects of their lives.
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This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.