The Tiny Enemy in the Dog’s Gut

If the dog just can’t get rid of diarrhea, there is probably a microscopic parasite behind it: Giardia is one of the most common intestinal parasites in four-legged friends.

It was an uncomfortable time for Marie-Elisabeth Nagel from Bremgarten in the canton of Aargau: “My two dogs and three cats suddenly suffered from severe diarrhea – all together,” she says. She would get up in the middle of the night to clean up her pets’ excrement and go for walks – and over time she began to worry. When intestinal-strengthening preparations and homeopathic remedies were of no use, Nagel put fecal samples from all the animals in a small bag and drove to the vet. Their diagnosis: The animals were infested with so-called giardia, unicellular intestinal parasites that can occur in dogs, cats, and humans.

“Giardia are a darned topic,” says veterinarian Franziska Hilfiker-Jud from the “Small Animal Practice 4 Pfoten” in Villmergen AG. Because the pathogen is not to be trifled with. If the owner does nothing, diarrhea can dry out the animal’s body. “There have already been deaths because of Giardia,” says Hilfiker. These parasites are particularly common in dogs: in studies, between 8 and 20 percent of the domestic dogs examined tested positive for the pathogen. “In our practice, at least every second diarrhea patient carries giardia,” says Hilfiker. Other causes of diarrhea often favor the disease, such as feeding problems or deficient intestinal flora. However, there seem to be major regional differences in terms of the frequency of Giardia. She once worked in a practice in the canton of Solothurn, says Hilfiker. Giardia was hardly an issue there.

The Pathogen Survives for Months

Typical for dogs with Giardia infestation is slimy feces, often mixed with fresh blood, which “extremely stinks”, as Hilfiker says. An experienced veterinarian can therefore often diagnose the disease almost by the nose. Dogs and cats become infected when they eat or lick up the droppings of infected animals. When cleaning, they can also rub their own droppings on their fur and become infected again later – all the more so since the pathogens survive in the environment for months.

This is one reason why treating giardia infections can be frustrating. There are two preparations that are used to combat Giardia. But all too often the therapy fails or new infections keep coming up.

In order to prevent this as much as possible, veterinarians always treat all animals in the household, even if only one has been diagnosed with Giardia. The survival stages of the pathogen in the environment can practically only be killed by heat. She, therefore, advises owners to clean floors and carpets with the steamer and to wash dog blankets as hot as possible, says Hilfiker. There is a vaccine in the US. However, this is not available in Switzerland and its effect is controversial. “All in all,” says the veterinarian, “there isn’t really a herb against this disease.”

Marie-Elisabeth Nagel also had to experience how difficult it is to fight Giardia. “It took more than four weeks to get the disease under control,” she says. “It was really getting to the kidneys.” Today she pays close attention to when her dogs sniff at the side of the path on a walk – and intervenes immediately if they get too close to a pile of excrement.

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