Giardia is a parasitic species classified as protozoa. Each individual of this species comprises of only one cell, but giardia can take its toll on the much larger animals who become our furry family members, including dogs, cats, and even ferrets! When giardia makes its way to the gastrointestinal tract, it can cause diarrhea that may lead to dehydration, and this in turn fatal if left untreated. Interestingly, most dogs who get infected show no sign of illness, and when giardia eggs (cysts) are found in the stool of a healthy adult dog or cat who is asymptomatic there is seemingly no immediate cause for concern. Puppies, kittens, and adult dogs and cats are at a much higher risk for experiencing symptoms and poor outcomes.
So how do our four-legged friends even get giardia? Usually our pets inadvertently ingest the parasite’s cysts, often from contaminated drinking water or even from eating feces from an infected animal. Once in the gastrointestinal tract, the cyst goes through several stages of maturation. Eventually, the pet passes infective cysts in the stool. These cysts lie in the environment and can then infect others.
The tell-tale symptom of giardiasis, as mentioned above, is diarrhea. The stool may be greasy, smelly, and/or contain an abundance of mucus. Other symptoms may include weight loss and vomiting. Giardiasis is diagnosed by performing a microscopic examination of a stool sample. The cysts are quite small and usually require a special floatation medium for detection, so they are not normally found during routine fecal examinations. Occasionally, the parasites may be seen on a direct smear of the feces. Tests are available for detection of antigens (cell proteins) of Giardia in the blood or feces. These tests are more accurate than the stool exam, but it may require several days to get a result from the laboratory.
Once your pet has been diagnosed, your veterinarian will prescribe an antibiotic which you’ll administer to your pet for about five to seven days. Other drugs may also be prescribed if diarrhea and dehydration occur. Luckily, the prognosis for giardiasis tends to be good!
On a final note, after you’ve brought your pet home, and while they’re receiving treatment, you’ll want to thoroughly clean your home. Not only may other pets in the household get infected, but there’s also a chance that you could get infected (albeit a very small chance). Wash and disinfect your pet’s belongings, including bedding, toys, and dishes thoroughly and regularly to guard against giardia and other contaminants.
If you suspect your pet may be experiencing symptoms of Giardia or have any questions regarding this illness, be sure to give NOVA Pets Health Center a call at (703) 378-9791 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a consultation.