Giardia is a dangerous and surprisingly common parasite that affects dogs and other mammals. Your dog is most at-risk during the wettest periods of the year, but there are things you can do to protect your pet.
What Exactly is Giardia?
Giardia – scientific name Giardiais – is a species of single-celled parasite. They survive by infecting the GI tract of a host, usually a mammal, where they reproduce. Mature Giardia parasites eventually turn into cysts which in turn slough off in the feces of an infected animal, making others vulnerable to exposure.
How Are Dogs Exposed to Giardia?
Dogs are exposed when they come into contact with infected feces. This most commonly happens when dogs drink water that’s been contaminated from feces-laden runoff, such as in puddles at dog parks. Sticks, toys, grass, and bedding can also cause contagion.
Anywhere dogs congregate is particularly susceptible to hosting Giardia. Although it’s unlikely for an infected dog to spread the parasite to other species, like cats or humans, it does happen.
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What Giardia Does to Dogs
Some dogs who are exposed to Giardia show no signs of illness whatsoever. Other less fortunate pups can suffer from severe vomiting, diarrhea, and weight loss. These effects are particularly dangerous for puppies and senior dogs, and those suffering from compromised immune systems.
Many of Giardia’s symptoms are similar to other common canine GI viruses, but you should be particularly concerned if you know your dog has come in contact with stagnant water or has recently been around other dogs. Symptoms to watch for include:
- Poor coat quality
- Weight loss/failure to gain weight
Preventing and Treating Giardia
There’s no vaccine or medication that can prevent your dog from contracting Giardia. Your best bet is vigilance; since the parasites are spread through feces, keeping your dog’s environment as clean as possible is paramount. Avoid locations where feces is prevalent and take special care to choose a groomer, boarding facility, and/or doggy daycare that is very hygienic. Never let your dog drink from communal water bowls or puddles.
If you suspect your dog has contracted Giardia, reach out to your veterinarian. No test is 100% conclusive but fecal diagnostics are often able to detect Giardia cysts. Your vet may recommend you perform several fecal diagnostic tests back-to-back to increase the chance of detecting any parasites present.
If your dog does have Giardia, your vet will prescribe medication to help kill the remaining parasites. They’ll also give you specific instructions for decontaminating your dog’s environment, such as toys and bedding, and may suggest you bathe your dog using a special shampoo designed to kill any parasitic cysts.
Dogs who’ve recovered from Giardia are at higher risk of reinfection, particularly if they go back to where they were infected in the first place, such as a dog park. Your veterinarian will likely encourage you to run one or more fecal diagnostics a few weeks and/or months after the initial diagnosis to be sure your dog isn’t still infected.