What is Giardia in cats?
Giardia is a kind of single-celled parasite that lives inside the digestive system of animals. The scientific name is giardia intestinalis or giardia cati (although people have shifted away from using that as they realized that the same parasite was infecting multiple species and not just cats). The technical term for the disease your cat gets from this is Giardiasis.
What are the symptoms of feline Giardia?
Your cat may or may not show symptoms. Many cats get it and are entirely healthy without ever having any problems. Cats that do show symptoms will have feline diarrhea, and sometimes you will see blood in the cat's stool. Also, you may see weight loss as well as a decrease in the quality of the cat's coat of fur. Your cat may be vomiting more frequently as well. The feces may begin to look and smell strange as well, and it sometimes looks very pale.
How do cats get it?
Cats get it from each other, generally, but can get it from any animal that has it. Otherwise healthy cats usually will not get infected with this parasite unless they are in very close quarters with other cats, such as in a cattery or in a kennel. Kittens and older cats are more at risk.
Giardia is transmitted between cats by ingesting it or by drinking water that has it in the water. Cats that are infested will begin passing fully developed, adult parasites in their feces. Other cats can easily ingest these. Usually it's not by actually eating the feces, but the cat will step in it and get it on its paws, and then lick the paws while grooming itself. If the cats use the same litterbox, this is very likely as they will be digging around in it.
Cats that are allowed outdoors can also get it by drinking from contaminated water sources - streams, pools of water, etc. can all have Giardia in them. Flooding and rain can lead to fecal contamination of many sources of water outdoors.
What is the treatment?
There are several drugs used specifically to treat it in cats, including Metronidazole, Quinacrine, and Furazolidone. Your vet will need to prescribe one for you, and will need to do a fecal test to verify that Giardia is the cause. Most cats will recover quite well, but some cats with suppressed immune systems for some reason, who have been suffering from other diseases that have made them weak, or who are very elderly will be at risk of serious consequences from it. Some cats even die from the diarrhea and the resulting dehydration. Let your vet know if the cat has any history of illness to be worried about, or if the diarrhea seems particularly bad. Your vet may want to take steps to ensure that the cat is properly hydrated if that is the case.
Can people or dogs get it from cats?
It is unknown at this time. The same Giardia can infect multiple species, and it used to be thought that people primarily got it from animals. However, a lot of scientists are now questioning this and believe that contaminated water is the main source. This parasite is a common cause of diarrhea in people (specifically Traveler's Diarrhea - if you've heard of Montezuma's Revenge in Mexico, this is one of the potential causes).
Because it is not certain whether or not you can get it from your pet, you should assume that you can and take precautions against it. You are only likely to get it if you ingest something that has been contaminated. Remember that your cat may spread the Giardia around via its feet - it will be covering up its litter, and will then be wandering around your house. Keep the cat off the countertop or any areas where you will be preparing food. Likewise, make sure the cat cannot get near the dishes in anyway or get into the cabinets.
You may want to start preparing food only on cutting boards - you can put it away when you're done, and wash it thoroughly between uses. You can also mix a little bit of bleach into water and use it to clean surfaces you are worried about.
Finally, if you have a suppressed immune system because of a disease, age, or some other reason, be especially careful, as this is most dangerous to people in that condition.
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