Infestation with the various parasites called coccidia is extremely common in cats -- even more so in kittens. This infestation can lead to coccidiosis, a disease affecting the gastrointestinal system. If your kitten or cat experiences frequent bouts of diarrhea, coccidia may be the culprit.
These tiny parasites live inside the bodies of many types of animals, but each strain of coccidia is species-specific. For example, although puppies are also prone to coccidia, those one-celled organisms aren't the same ones infecting cats. In cats, the main coccidia parasites are Isospora felis and Isospora rivolta. While these parasites don't affect people, another feline coccidia, toxoplasmosis, can. Infected cats shed coccidia in their poop. That's one reason pregnant women are advised not to clean litter boxes or to wear gloves if they must do so, since toxoplasmosis can affect the fetus. Kittens pick up coccidia easily because they are exposed to their mother's feces.
Diarrhea is the primary symptom of coccidiosis. It might be bloody and full of mucus. Your cat may also lose weight, become dehydrated and generally look unwell. If he's heavily infested, he might stop eating or start vomiting. Cats with healthy immune systems may harbor coccidia but don't have any symptoms. Kittens, with their immature immune systems, aren't so lucky.
Although your vet may suspect coccidia from the symptoms you describe, she'll need a stool sample to make a definite diagnosis. However, even if the test for coccidia is negative, the parasites can still be present. She'll also take a blood sample to make sure something else isn't causing the problem.
Antibiotics should take care of the coccidia. Vets usually prescribe sulfadimethoxine and trimethoprim-sulfadiazine. The medication doesn't actually kill the coccidia, but it keeps them from reproducing so they eventually die off. If your cat is very dehydrated from diarrhea, your vet may administer IV fluids to bring him up to par. In kittens, it's the dehydration that's the most dangerous part of coccidiosis.
Cleanliness is the path for being coccidia-free. Clean the litter box as often as possible, at least morning and evening. Disinfect it and the area surrounding the litter box regularly. Keep your cats indoors, so they can't catch coccidia from rodents or birds. Feed your cats a high-quality food to keep them healthy and their immune systems strong, along with washing food and water bowls every day. Keep your kitty's environment as stress-free as possible. If one cat in your household comes down with coccidiosis, treat all the felines, even if the others don't show any symptoms.
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.