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Giardia in your pets

Photographs: iStock

Text: Tarek Abu Sham

If your dog or cat develops diarrhoea, you're probably wondering what is going on. If your pet spends time with you outdoors, your veterinarian might suggest testing for Giardia, but what is this odd-sounding infection?

What is Giardia?

The simplest explanation: Giardia is an intestinal protozoal organism. Your veterinarian may talk to you about things your pet might have been exposed to, including eating anything abnormal, changing up pet foods, or recent trips. If you've ever experienced giardiasis, your own doctor might have referred to it as "traveller's diarrhoea." Typically pets and people have GI signs - particularly "explosive" and watery diarrhoea.

How is Giardia transmitted?

Animals contract giardiasis by ingesting Giardia organisms. Unfortunately, the cyst form of Giardia is what usually infects people and pets, and it's very hardy, especially in moist environments like near a river bed.

For a dog's indiscriminate taste testing, Giardia can easily be picked up. Pets that like to "taste" other animals' stools are definitely at a higher risk for getting exposed to and infected with Giardia. So even if your pet doesn't like to eat or drink outside of their bowls, they could be exposed after playing in contaminated soil.

How can people get Giardia?

While you should definitely talk to your doctor if your pet gets diagnosed with Giardia, you're not likely to be affected by the same type of Giardia. Still, you should use caution when cleaning up after them to be on the safe side.

The CDC strongly suggests regular disinfecting of household surfaces minimising potential exposure. That's a good practice and can help reduce you or your pet's exposure. Wash their bedding, bowls, and toys regularly.

Wear gloves when participating in outdoor activities that expose you to the soil, such as gardening. Wash your hands well before eating. If you come into contact with contaminated water, the ECDC also points out that you should follow best practices when purifying drinking water.

"It's essential to ensure your pet doesn't get reinfected or infect another animal."

What are the symptoms of Giardia?

In short, diarrhoea, lots of it. For some pets, it can cause intermittent diarrhoea and become more chronic. Some pets may also become nauseated with Giardia infections. In pets with long-term infections, you can see weight loss.

How to treat Giardia

Many things can cause GI signs in pets: eating socks, intestinal parasites, even stress. The mainstay of diagnosis for Giardia is a faecal exam. Unfortunately, Giardia can be hard to find on microscopic faecal exams, so your vet might also recommend a special test to look for specific antigens in the stool. If your pet is particularly ill, they may also need blood work or abdominal X-rays. For treatment, your veterinarian will likely reach for two medications – dewormer fenbendazole and antibiotic metronidazole. Your pet may start with one or both to increase potential effectiveness over 3-10 days.

Your vet will likely also recommend a bland diet. Highly digestible diets are the other backbone of treatment. If your pet is dehydrated, your vet might also prescribe fluids.

It's essential to ensure your pet doesn't get reinfected or infect another animal. When your pet defecates, pick up and dispose of the stool immediately. Wash the fur if it has faecal matter on it, particularly on the paws or under the tail.

The prognosis for pets with Giardia is pretty good, but discuss follow-up exams with your vet to ensure there aren't any lingering problems. Remember, if you have any questions, contact us so we can ensure your pet gets the care they need, and you can rest easy!

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