In reviewing our 2012 fecal test results at our practice, we found 20% of fecal tests were positive for intestinal worms such as roundworms, coccidia and Giardia. Surprisingly, Giardia infection made about one half of the positive tests.
Giardiasis is an intestinal infection of man and animals caused by a protozoan parasite Giarda intestinalis (also known as Giardia lamblia).Â Giardia is a simple one-celled parasitic species; it is not a âwormâ, bacteria or virus. The parasite occurs worldwide and is a common cause of âTravelerâs Diarrheaâ in people. Outdoor enthusiasts who inadvertently consume contaminated water may develop âbeaver feverâ, which is another name for giardiasis in people. Other examples of protozoan parasites that can cause enteric (intestinal) disease are Coccidia, Cryptosporidia and Toxoplasma.
Giardiasis can be an important cause of illness, especially diarrhea, in animals and man. However, the majority of dogs infected with Giardia do not have diarrhea, vomiting or any other signs of illness.Â The Giardia organism has two forms, a fragile, feeding form exists in the gut of infected animals, while a hardy cystic form is shed in feces and can survive several months in the environment, particularly in water and damp environments.Â A dog becomes infected with Giardia when it swallows the cyst stage of the parasites. In susceptible dogs, once the cyst passes into the dogâs intestines; it goes through transformation to the trophozoite or feeding form and attaches to the intestinal wall to feed. If sufficient numbers are present, clinical signs of damage to the intestinal wall will develop. Trophozoites reproduce by dividing, and some transform into the cystic form. Eventually, the dog passes cysts in its stool.Â These cysts are immediately able to infect another animal. Giardiasis can be transmitted by eating or sniffing the cysts from contaminated ground, or by drinking contaminated water or a dog can reinfect itself by licking its soiled rear-end!
When Giardia cysts are found in the stool of a healthy adult dog without diarrhea, they are generally considered a transient, insignificant finding. However, in puppies and debilitated adult dogs, they may cause severe, watery diarrhea that may be fatal if left untreated.Â The likelihood of developing disease increase when large numbers of cysts are present in the environment from fecal contamination. Giardiasis is a common occurrence in environments that are densely populated, such as kennels, pet stores, or animal shelters.
What are clinical signs of Giardiasis?
These microscopic parasites attach themselves to the intestinal wall and the damage causes an acute (sudden-onset) foul-smelling diarrhea. The stool may range from soft to watery, often has a greenish tinge to it, and occasionally contains blood. Infected dogs tend to have excess mucus in the feces. Vomiting may occur in some cases. The signs may persist for several weeks and gradual weight loss may become apparent.Â The diarrhea may be intermittent. Most dogs do not have a fever but may be less active. The disease is not usually life threatening unless the dogsâ immune system is immature or immunocompromised.
Personally, I contracted Giardia as a nineteen year old from drinking stream water while back packing nearEstesPark. Twelve weeks and a 16 pound weight loss later, the doctors finally figured it out (after I told them I drank stream water) and I was cured.
A routine fecal floatation test may fail to detect these tiny cysts, which are shed inconsistently in the feces, and which often require a special zinc sulfate flotation solution for detection. Occasionally, the parasites may be seen on a direct smear of the feces. If your veterinarian suspects giardiasis, a sample of stool may be analyzed for the presence of Giardia specific antigens (cell proteins). Many cases are presumptively diagnosed on the basis of medical history and clinic signs suggestive of giardiasis.
The most common drug used to kill Giardia is fenbendazole, or Panacur. It is normally given for five days to treat giardiasis. Another antiparasitic drug, metronidazole, is an older treatment that is still quite useful, but not quite as effective as fenbendazole. A combination can be administered to pets with refractory diarrhea (diarrhea that hasnât responded to treatment). Supportive treatment with other drugs may be needed as supplemental therapy if dehydration or severe diarrhea is present. Some pets may require follow-up tests and treatments based on their condition and severity of infection. Lately, at our practice, we have seen resistant cases require repeated treatments.Â The prognosis is good in most cases. Debilitate or geriatric animals and those with incompetent immune systems are at increased risk for complications, including death.
Giardia can cause diarrhea in humans and can potentially be passed from dogs to humans. In the past, it was assumed that cats and dogs, along with wildlife, were an important source of infection for humans.Â However, human-to-human transmission is the most likely and important source and contaminated municipal water supplies are responsible for many outbreaks. Research suggests that although a dog or catâs Giardia can infect a human, and a humanâs Giardia can infect a dog or cat, the two are usually separate.
Even though it appears that a petâs Giardia will rarely cause problems in humans, if your pet is diagnosed with giardiasis, environmental disinfection and good personal hygiene are important to prevent accidental spread to humans. In particular, people with immunodeficiency, such as AIDS or cancer, or who are undergoing chemotherapy, should use care, especially when handling feces or after administering medications.
For environmental disinfection, you can use chlorine bleach at 1: 32 dilution, or 1 cup in a gallon of water. However, be sure that the affected surfaces can be safely treated with bleach. Giardia cysts are susceptible to drying so try to keep your environment as dry as possible. For best results, thoroughly clean the petâs living and sleeping areas and then allow the areas to dry out for several days before reintroducing pets.
In closing, Giardia, especially in dogs, seems to be on the rise. Annual fecal testing at your veterinarian would be advised.