Coccidiosis is an infectious parasitic disease of the intestinal tract of animals caused by coccidian protozoa. This species specific disease spreads from one animal to another by contact with infected faeces. In the majority of cases diarrhoea is the primary symptom.
Coccidiosis in Bearded dragons is very common. It is commonly seen in stressed Beardies, especially in neglected and unhygienic enclosures. As with all infected animal species, coccidia invade the gastrointestinal tract and cause cellular damage, giving rise to various degrees of diarrhoea. If uncontrolled or untreated, coccidiosis can even lead to death! The two main genera involved are Eimeria spp. and Isospora spp.
How Coccidia works
The Coccidia parasite has a simple life cycle. and is acquired by exposure to faecal-contaminated food and water. After the ingestion of ‘oocysts’, they give rise to various stages of the parasite, which grows and replicate in multiple sites of the small intestines of their host. At the end of their life cycle adults produce oocysts again which are excreted via faeces into the environment. Coccidia is known to build build up in the environment, especially in unhygienic and overcrowded enclosures. The diagnosis is made by finding the characteristic oocysts on faecal flotation.
There is some controversy as to the significance of this disease as many infected individuals can be purely be carriers (called ‘coccidiasis’). Although moderate to severe infections are more related to clinical signs some dragons tend to show severe disease, even with lower oocyst numbers. In other words, not all animals with coccidia have clinical signs of disease (sub-clinical). Stress is believed to be a major contributing factor.
Severely affected Bearded dragons mainly show gastrointestinal signs which includes the following:
- Partial or complete anorexia (lack of appetite)
- Weight loss & poor body condition
- Dehydration (wrinkled skin & sunken eyes)
- Weakness (lying flat)
- Lethargy or dullness (unaware of its surroundings)
More specific signs of coccidiosis in Bearded dragons include:
- Diarrhoea (abnormal or runny faeces and / or cloacal soiling)
- Blood tinged stool
Treatment & control
Treatment should consist of a combination of medication and fastidious and regular environmental control. While treatment is not always difficult, eradication of the coccidian parasite in the environment can be extremely difficult. Hygiene also plays a huge roll in the prevention and control of these parasites. Treatment should only commence under the supervision of a experienced reptile veterinarian.
Effective enclosure treatment includes sterilisation with a diluted bleach solution and proper desiccation (drying out). Some reptile veterinarians recommend a ‘two-cage’ system where one enclosure is properly cleaned and disinfected and let to dry while using the other. Coccidiosis can take weeks to treat efficiently. While not always the cause as believed by many, by discarding uneaten crickets after a meal the build-up and re-infestation can be prevented.