What is coccidia?
Coccidiosis is an infection with a one-celled organism; these organisms are classified as protozoa and are called coccidia. Coccidia are not worms; they are microscopic parasites that live within cells of the intestinal lining. Because they live in the intestinal tract and commonly cause diarrhea, they are often confused with worms.
The most common strains of coccidia found in Bearded Dragons are Isospora and Eimeria. These parasites are so common, that minimal amounts of the protozoan exist in perfectly “healthy” dragons, usually without negative effect.
These microorganisms exist at the expense of the host, but rarely rise to harmful levels, since the death of the bearded dragon means the end of the life for the coccidia. Although small amounts of coccidia are tolerated, it is not suggested that the condition remain untreated. In times of stress, a sickly beardie can quickly die from excessive levels of coccidia.
How did my Bearded Dragon become infected with coccidia?
Coccidia occur naturally in Bearded Dragons. Oocysts (immature coccidia) are passed in the feces of the Dragon. They lie in the environment and eventually sporozoite (mature) into a more developed oocyst, which can infect the Dragon again. Other Dragons may also become infected.
This process can occur in as little as 6 hours, but it usually takes 7-10 days. If the sporulated oocysts are swallowed, they mature in the Dragon’s intestine to complete the life cycle.
Each sporozoite is capable of making between 1 and 7 asexual generations. At this stage of the infection, massive numbers of cells are being destroyed in the small intestine If the oocysts should be swallowed by a cricket or attached to the body the cricket as it explores the fecal material, the Dragon may also become infected when it eat the cricket or other insects in the cage.
Also remember that young bearded dragons in particular love to taste things in their environment. They will taste their food, substrate, rocks/branches/cage.
They will even go up and taste feces. So the importance of keeping your bearded dragon’s home environment clean is critical both in bad times as well as good times. Also your young dragons are very susceptible to health problems when they are stressing.
Stress for your dragon will lower their immune system. As long as the Bearded Dragon’s immune system doesn’t become compromised from other illnesses, parasites or stress, the coccidia doesn’t increase to a level that impinges on the Dragon’s overall health.
What kinds of problems are caused by coccidia infection?
Direct side effects of a very severe infestation, long term, in a weakened animal, can be bleeding from the digestive system walls, metabolic poisoning from an overload of worms, displacement of food leading to malnutrition, anemia from the bleeding, lethargy, etc.
How is coccidia infection diagnosed?
Coccidiosis is diagnosed by performing a microscopic examination of the feces. Since the oocysts are much smaller than the eggs of the intestinal worms, a very careful study must be made.
The first noticeable symptom of elevated coccidia levels is the distinctly strong odor produced in the feces, and the most common effect is a loss of appetite, which generally isn’t serious in an adult.
How is the coccidia infection treated?
We do not have any medicine that will kill coccidia; only the patient’s immune system can do that. But we can give medicines called “coccidiostats” which can inhibit coccidial reproduction.
Once the numbers stop expanding, it is easier for the patient’s immune system to “catch up” and wipe the infection out. This also means, though, that the time it takes to clear the infection depends on how many coccidia organisms there are to start with and how strong the patient’s immune system is.
A typical treatment course lasts about a week or two but it is important to realize that the medication should be given until the diarrhea resolves plus an extra couple of days.
The most commonly used drug to treat high levels of coccidia is a sulfa-type antibiotic called Albon (sulfadimethoxine). The top 3 recommended dosage/treatment regimes are as follows:
50mg/kg for 3 days on / 3 days off / 3 days on and then have a fecal exam.
50mg/kg for 5 days and then every other day until fecals are negative.
75mg/kg the first day and then 40mg/kg for the next 6 days.
Albon’s Side Effects
Known side effects produced by using Albon are: sulfa crystals in the animal’s urine, which is not a problem in animals that stay well hydrated. Less common to have Keratoconjunctivitis sicca or ‘KCS’ (which is the technical term for a condition also known as ‘dry eye’.
It occurs because of inadequate tear production. Symptoms include a thick, yellowish discharge from the eye.), retinal damage, bone marrow suppression (A condition in which the cells of the bone marrow which produce red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets are inhibited), allergic reaction, fever, joint inflammation (arthritis), diarrhea, and kidney damage.
Albon is not recommended to use on animals that are pregnant or nursing (this would also apply to gravid reptiles) and any animal known to have a liver or kidney disease.
Holistic Remedy Options:
- Preferred: Either fresh garlic (hard to feed to a dragon), Garlic Salt (shake and bake crickets?) or Garlic Oil (eye dropper feed). Active ingredient called allicin. Garlic is also a sulfur-containing supplement. Remember sulfur happens to be the active ingredient in Albon.
- Power Olive leaf, mustard seed, black seed, pau d’arco, and cloves. Equal mix for each ingredient and use 1 TSP per cup of water (make a tea mix). Either mist babies with tea solution or syringe 4 cc orally for a large dragon.