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Giardia in Pets


If your dog or cat develops diarrhoea, you’re probably wondering what is going on. It’s definitely time to call your vet. 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?

Okay, you’re here because someone mentioned Giardia in your vet’s office or you read about it going down the rabbit hole of the internet. The boring explanation is as follows: Giardia is an intestinal protozoal organism, and it goes by a few different names.

When your pet presents to the veterinarian’s office and they talk to you about things your pet might’ve been exposed to, they’ll likely cover eating anything abnormal, changing up pet foods, or recent trips. In many places, Giardia will be on the list of rule-outs your veterinarian has.

If you’ve ever experienced giardiasis, your own doctor might’ve referred to it as “traveller’s diarrhoea.” Typically pets and people present with GI signs, particularly “explosive” and watery diarrhoea.

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. That means use caution when cleaning up after them, but unless you have a pet like a chinchilla, you’re probably going to be just fine because it’s not one that usually infects people.

How Is Giardia Transmitted?

As mentioned above, your pet can 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.

it’s pretty easy to inadvertently consume it — especially for dogs. They can be a bit indiscriminate in their taste-testing. Pets that like to “taste” other animals’ stools are definitely at a higher risk for getting exposed to and infected with Giardia. Even if your pet doesn’t like to eat or drink outside of their bowls, they could be exposed after playing in contaminated soil: if they clean themselves after getting dirty, they might ingest it.

How Can People Get Giardia?

So we’ve covered that it’s pretty hard for you to get Giardia from your four-legged hiking buddy, so you don’t have anything to worry about, right? Well, not quite. It’s definitely still a possibility, especially if you or someone in your family has a health condition that suppresses their immune system.

As such, different organizations have made recommendations to help prevent the spread. The CDC strongly suggests regular cleaning and disinfecting of household surfaces to help minimize your potential exposure. That’s a pretty good practice in general and can help reduce you or your pet’s exposure to other things that could make any of you sick. Wash their bedding, bowls, and toys regularly.

Because you can get exposed to Giardia outside, wear gloves when you are participating in outdoor activities that expose you to the soil, such as gardening. Wash your hands well before you go to eat. If you might come into contact with contaminated water, the ECDC also points out that you should follow best practices when purifying drinking water for you and Fido.

What Are the Symptoms of Giardia?

So now you know what Giardia is, but what does it cause? In short, diarrhoea. Often lots of diarrhoea. For some pets, it can cause intermittent diarrhea and become more of a chronic illness.

Some pets may also become nauseated with Giardia infections. In pets with a more long-term infection, you can see weight loss. These types of infections are more common in pets without a strong immune system, such as if your dog is on chemotherapy or much older.

How to Treat Giardia

Okay, so you notice watery diarrhoea in your pet and schedule a vet appointment. Now it’s time to actually diagnose the cause of diarrhoea. Keep in mind that there are lots of things that can cause GI signs in pets: eating socks, intestinal parasites, even stress. Your veterinary team will discuss potential causes with you and recommend diagnostics.

The mainstay of diagnosis is a faecal exam. Giardia can be hard to find on microscopic faecal exams sometimes, so your vet might also recommend a special test to look for antigens in the stool that indicate Giardia. If your pet is having chronic diarrhoea, your vet might even recommend repeat faecal evaluations to try and get a firm diagnosis on their soft stool.

If your pet is particularly ill or might’ve eaten something, they may also need blood work or X-rays of the abdomen. Other tests might depend on your pet’s age or things they might’ve been exposed to.

When it’s time to treat for Giardia, your veterinarian will likely reach for two medications, fenbendazole and metronidazole. Your veterinarian might start with one of these medicines, or he might suggest using both to increase potential effectiveness. Treatment usually lasts for between 3 and 10 days, and you’ll want to make sure you follow the directions exactly as they are prescribed since metronidazole is an antibiotic and fenbendazole is a dewormer. We don’t want medication resistance to develop!

Because your pet’s digestive tract needs a bit of a break to heal from watery diarrhoea, your vet will likely also recommend a bland diet for them. Highly digestible diets are the other backbone of treatment. If your pet is dehydrated, your vet might also give them fluids to help rehydrate them.

It’s really important to make sure your pet doesn’t re-infect themselves or infect another animal. When your pet defecates, pick up and dispose of the stool immediately. Because the cyst form of Giardia can hang around, make sure you wash their fur if they get faeces on them, particularly on their paws or under their tail. Doing this will also help reduce you and your family’s exposure, but use gloves and wash your hands well afterwards.

Final Thoughts

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

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