- Coccidia is a protozoan organism that infects a cat's intestinal lining
- Kittens under 4 months are most likely to get coccidia
- A cat can get coccidia by being exposed to infected feces or consuming a paratenic host
- Symptoms include lethargy, decreased appetite, dehydration, pale gums, and abdominal discomfort
- Medication is typically prescribed to treat coccidia
- Regular litter box scooping/cleaning, deworming your cat, and stopping them from eating insects/animals can help to prevent coccidia
If you enjoy the company of cats, you can’t deny that kittens are extremely cute. They are very affectionate and small, and many pet parents will take a kitten home at some point in their lives. But kittens may develop some diarrhea and many are diagnosed with parasites.
Coccidia in cats is fairly common and is found in up to 36 percent of cats in the United States . If your veterinarian says “your kitten has coccidia,” what are the treatment options? How do you get rid of it? And can humans get coccidia? Read more to learn all about coccidia in cats.
What Is Coccidia in Cats?
Coccidia is a protozoan organism, or a very small creature made of individual cells that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Cystisospora felis and Cystisospora rivolta are the two species that infect the intestinal lining of cats. Coccidia in cats is very common in that more than one-third of cats may be infected.
Young kittens under 4 months of age are most likely to get coccidia. Coccidia is often self-limiting, meaning that it can go away on its own and is not serious — but only if the cat’s general health is good and their immune system is mature. In kittens, they struggle to fight off the infection. Also, kittens are less likely to be able to handle dehydration caused by the parasite, so coccidia infection in kittens is more dangerous than coccidia infection in adults.
What Causes Coccidia in Cats?
Cats get coccidia either by being exposed to the poop (feces) of another cat who is passing coccidia, or by eating what’s referred to as a paratenic host. Paratenic hosts are creatures carrying the parasite, but the parasite cannot produce more until it reaches its final host — in this case, cats. The paratenic hosts for coccidia are bugs, such as cockroaches, or rodents, such as mice.
Coccidia is very contagious between cats. The parasite is good at surviving the environment for several months if surfaces exposed to feces are not cleaned properly. Queens (or cats who had kittens) often spread coccidia to their kittens. The parasite is very species-specific, meaning coccidia in cats cannot be transferred to humans, dogs, or any other species.
Symptoms of Coccidia in Cats
Many cats do not have symptoms when infected with the parasite, particularly adult cats. If a cat does have symptoms, diarrhea is most common since coccidia infects cells in the lining of the intestines. However, the following symptoms may also occur:
- Lethargy, or decreased activity
- Decreased appetite
- Pale gums (instead of pink)
- Abdominal (belly) discomfort
How the diarrhea looks varies greatly in cats. Diarrhea from coccidia can be a little soft to liquid. Sometimes blood or mucus is seen in the feces. Often the diarrhea is very smelly, but there is no particular smell for coccidia. The parasite is much too small to be seen. In very young kittens, veterinarians clinically report that yellow liquid diarrhea may occur with coccidia.
Diagnosing Coccidia in Cats
Typically, a veterinarian will recommend a fecal sample when your cat is in the clinic for a yearly check-up and any time your cat experiences diarrhea. Having a fecal test performed is especially critical in kittens, as they very frequently have parasites of some kind.
Coccidia is diagnosed in cats by looking for cysts in a fecal flotation. A small amount of feces is tested by mixing the feces with a special sugar solution and examining the sample under the microscope for cysts. There are some cysts that could show up in your cat’s feces that are not Cystisospora spp.; these other species do not infect cats and do not require treatment.
If your cat has pale gums, your veterinarian may also run some bloodwork. Anemia, or low amount of red blood cells, can be diagnosed if your cat has coccidia, but this is uncommon.
Coccidia Treatment in Cats
Coccidia can be treated in cats with medication provided by your veterinarian to be given at home. Treatment also involves appropriate cleaning of your home. Cleaning is challenging in that coccidia is difficult to kill in the environment, and cats frequently re-infect themselves repeatedly by defecating (pooping), then grooming small amounts of feces off their fur coat afterward.
Medications for Coccidia in Cats
There are two types of medication to treat coccidia in cats: coccidiostatic and coccidiocidal medications.
Coccidiostatic medications stop coccidia from reproducing and making more coccidia, so the immune system has to finish getting rid of the infection. This may not be enough treatment for kittens or adult cats with weakened immune systems.
Coccidiocidal medications actually kill the coccidia. This is often recommended as it decreases the chance of coccidia getting into the environment from your cat and has better treatment results.
An example of a common coccidiostatic medication used to treat cats includes sulfadimethoxine (brand name Albon). This often is prescribed for three weeks, and some coccidia are resistant, meaning the medication will not work. An example of a common coccidiocidal medication is ponazuril. Studies show that one dose is effective, but giving the medication once a day for three days is even more effective. Recently, a new drug in the same class, called toltrazuril, has also been shown to be effective. After treatment with ponazuril, studies show cats are no longer contagious eight days after treatment began.
General Cost to Treat Coccidia in Cats
The cost of treating coccidia depends on the symptoms your cat is experiencing. For most cats, fecal testing and medication are the only required items and will likely cost around $50-$150. If your kitten has a severe coccidia infection, they may need substantial support, such as fluids for hydration and other medications to help with nausea or severe diarrhea. In this case, treatment could cost hundreds of dollars, around $300-$500.
Cleaning for Coccidia in Cats
In addition to seeking treatment if your cat is infected with coccidia, it’s also important to adhere to safe cleaning practices. Cat feces can infect another cat between 8 and 48 hours after the feces is produced. For this reason, cleaning the litter box every day or even twice daily should keep other cats from being exposed. The litter box itself should be kept clean of any feces, and litter should be thrown away every day. If your cat has messy diarrhea, wipe their paws and hind end very thoroughly every day until the infection is cleared.
The actual cleaning process — i.e. using soap and water to get all feces, food, or other contaminants off of a surface or item — is the most important step. Any bedding or fabrics used by your cat should be thoroughly washed on hot. The litter box, dishes, toys, and other items frequently used by your cat should all be cleaned. After cleaning, all surfaces and non-porous items would ideally be disinfected. Strong ammonia products have been shown to kill coccidia in the environment, but many of these products are toxic to cats and should be used with extreme caution. Oxidizing agents are also effective against coccidia. Spray or clean surfaces liberally and leave to air dry or let the cleaner sit for 10 minutes before wiping away. Keep your cat away while disinfecting.
How to Prevent Coccidia in Cats
There are a few ways you can help prevent coccidia infection in your cat:
Ensure your cat is routinely dewormed, especially if they go outside. While routine dewormers do not treat coccidia, coccidia is often associated with other gastrointestinal parasites. Cats with a compromised immune system or already infected with parasites will have a harder time fighting off coccidia infection.
Prevent your cat from eating insects and animals. Options include keeping your cat indoors and stopping mice or other rodents from entering your home. Decrease insect infestations and consider professional exterminators if insects are in your home.
Scoop the litter box every day. Even if one of your cats has coccidia, if you remove feces every day, it will keep other cats from being exposed.
Regularly empty and clean the litter box. You may not see obvious soiling of the litter box itself, but small particles of feces can stick to the litter box and carry coccidia. For healthy cats, cleaning the litter box is recommended weekly.
Keep new cats separated from your cat until deworming and fecal testing has been performed. New cats may be carrying coccidia. When a cat is stressed, such as when moving into a new home, shedding of coccidia can worsen.
Prophylactically treat pregnant and nursing queens. Even if female cats aren’t diagnosed with coccidia, they should be treated with ponazuril when they have kittens to prevent potential infections from spreading.
Other gastrointestinal parasites are frequently observed in cats with coccidia. This may be because kittens and young cats are routinely infected with parasites like roundworms, or it may be that cats have a harder time fighting off coccidia infections when they have other infections.
- Companion Animal Parasite Council. “Coccidia.” Retrieved from: https://capcvet.org/guidelines/coccidia/