Coccidia Life Cycle in Bearded Dragons

What you should know about Coccidia in Bearded Dragons

Coccidia in bearded dragons can be a daunting prospect for pet owners. It is quite common for coccidia to be found in bearded dragons showing no symptoms of disease where the immune system is in full swing keeping the infection under control.

When the concentration exceeds the bearded dragon’s immune system capability to repair the damage caused by coccidia, common in captivity, it becomes a disease which can be life threatening. Stress is believed to be the main factor in triggering coccidia to move from being an infection to a disease.

Coccidiosis in bearded dragons, particularly young, is a major cause of death (Diaz-Figueroa, n.d.).

Authors: Dr Amna Ahmad (DVM) and Tina Nairn

Facts about Coccidiosis in Bearded Dragons

Cause: Isospora amphiboluri
Symptoms: smelly diarrhea which may have blood and mucus, apathy, weight loss, poor growth, dehydration and pale gums if significant blood is lost. Internally symptoms include intestinal intussusception and enteritis
Risk factors: young, stresses including overcrowding, small housing, contaminated poor nutrition, poor husbandry practices.
Zoonotic risk: not known to infect other species.
Diagnosis: fecal flotation.
Treatment: drugs, good husbandry practices.

The rate of coccidiosis infection across pet bearded dragons is high. McAllister et al (McAllister, 1995) tested 50 bearded dragons bred in California and found 32% to be infected with Isospora amphiboluri. The rate of infection was echoed in a study by Ras-Norynska and Sokol (Ras-Norynska & Sokol, 2015) where 49 bearded dragons showing no symptoms of disease (asymptomatic) for parasites were tested with 36.7% positive for Isospora spp and 4% with Eimeria spp. That is more than 1 in every 3 bearded dragons infected with coccidia. More than one species of coccidia can be present at any one time.

Coccidiosis is responsible for significant mortality in juvenile bearded dragons (Kim, 2002). The diarrhea and dehydration caused by coccidia escalate the seriousness of the illness in juveniles. However, all ages are susceptible.

The protozoans Isospora and Eimeria are the common causes of coccidiosis in reptiles. There are other coccidian parasites such as Cryptosporidium (crypto). Crypto it is usually referred to by its name rather than the general blanket of coccidia due to its devastating nature.

The most commonly found species of coccidian parasite in bearded dragons, and the subject of this post, is Isospora amphiboluri. Once coccidiosis progressed to a disease (remember the infection can be present but the host is asymptomatic), it is serious and can be fatal for your bearded dragon if not timely diagnosed and properly treated.

Isospora amphiboluri invades the intestinal mucosa, destroying epithelial cells that form the lining of the intestine.

Often coccidiosis in bearded dragons is not alone, it co-exists with some other secondary bacterial infections. These co-infections can further aggravate the condition and the infected host shows more pronounced and more serious signs and symptoms. Early diagnosis and treatment are key to preventing death of bearded dragon particularly for the young juveniles.

How do Bearded Dragons get Coccidiosis?

Bearded dragons get infected with coccidia through fecal to oral route. This means that there is some contamination from bearded dragons poop that is getting in their mouth.

An infected bearded dragon sheds coccidia eggs called oocysts (pronounced oh-uh-sists) in its feces. Once the contaminated stool has been passed it touches surfaces, substrate, accessories, feet and tail, food or whatever else is lands on or near. That is coccidia in bearded dragons cycles.

Bearded dragons are especially vulnerable to coccidiosis when young although it may occur at any age. Predisposing factors for coccidia include:

  • Stress
  • Housed in small areas
  • Poorly sanitized housing
  • Inadequate and sudden changes in diet
  • Overcrowding

The good news is that these predisposing factors are something pet bearded dragon owners have control over. By implementing good husbandry practices coccidia should not escalate to disease status.

Bearded dragons do not become immune to coccidia (Walden, 2009).

The Story of How Uto the Pet Bearded Dragon got Coccidiosis

bearded dragon stool
Loose bearded dragon stool

This is a little story on how Uto (our fictitious bearded dragon) got coccidiosis.

Uto, like many bearded dragons, was already infected with coccidia. On this fine day Uto did his business (pooped) in his house. As he was passing this ewwwy mess on his floor, he looked over at his water dish and became fascinated with it. He approached the water dish gently flicking his tail on the poop had just left behind as he walked.

Uto walked through his water dish momentarily stopping to enjoy the liquid refreshment. As he left the water dish his tail, which was now contaminated with coccidia oocysts, touched the water. Now the water was contaminated.

He felt the urge to get under his heat lamp and up he went to lay on his branch in the warmth lightly dripping water on his way. Everything he dripped on was now contaminated as well.

Uto licked his branch which he had left a few drops of water on. Bingo, the oocysts are ingested!

Uto’s human came to offer food. Noticing the poop Uto’s human removed the stool ensuring not to breath in the fragrant odor. To ensure that things were super nice Uto’s human even wiped over the spot with a disinfectant wipe.

Uto paced up and down waiting impatiently for the food, walking through the now cleaned area. His human picks him up and pops him out of the way for a minute to clean. Unfortunately the oocysts cannot be killed by normal disinfecting so now Uto’s little feet and human hands have oocysts on them.

The food has arrived and Uto jumps in to munch. Uto spreads his veggies around a bit and sometimes even stands on them. There are crickets and cockroaches on offer and they are running through the previously pooped areas as well. Oocysts have attach to the insects and they are now contaminated, right before they are eaten. A lucky few escape Uto’s capture and once feeding is over, they are returned to their colony. The colony is now contaminated.

Within a matter of minutes to hours, the contamination has spread from Uto, to human and feeder insect colonies.

Fortunately, Uto the pet bearded dragon is very healthy and lives a relatively stress free life (a cause of coccidiosis as it suppresses the immune system) with his human. Uto’s human follows the best cleaning practices (more on routine cleaning for bearded dragons in the post here). At this point, Uto’s immune system is able keep up with the rate of infection.

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Zoonotic Potential – Can I catch Coccidia from my Bearded Dragon?

No cases of humans catching coccidiosis or in some way cross infected from pet bearded dragons has been recorded.

Coccidiosis infects many vertebrates including reptiles, birds and humans is generally species specific. Isospora amphiboluri is a host specific parasite that infects bearded dragons. Coccidia are in general host specific in nature, so humans cannot get coccidiosis from their pet bearded dragon. However, other reptiles may be vulnerable.

Life Cycle of Coccidia

Coccidia are protozoa and the most common endoparasite detected in bearded dragons. Coccidia in bearded dragons is as prevalent as 1 in every 3 are infected.

Isospora characteristically requires only one host in which it completes its whole life cycle.

Coccidia Life Cycle in Bearded Dragons
The coccidia life cycle in bearded dragons.

Starting the life cycle of coccidia in bearded dragons with the egg, infected bearded dragon shed oocysts in their feces.

Once the oocysts have sporulated, they are infective. Walden’s (2009) research shows it is rare for the oocysts to be shed in an unsporulated state and that sporulation will often occur in the colon or cloaca making them infectious on passing in the stool.

A study by McAllister et al (McAllister, 1995) on the description of Isospora amphiboluri showed that oocysts were both unsporulated and sporulated within the feces. The unsporulated oocysts became sporulated within 4 days. It would be wise to assume that oocysts will generally be infectious once shed.

For oocysts that still need to sporulate, they require favorable environmental conditions to do so. Oxygen, humidity and temperature are key and everything your bearded dragon’s house has to offer.

Eimeria has a complex life cycle.
Eimeria has a complex life cycle. Attribution: USDA [Public domain]

The bearded dragon ingests the sporulated oocysts and they enter the gut. Bile and enzymes break the oocysts wall freeing the sporocysts which contain the sporozoites. In turn the sporozoites are then released and invade the intestinal mucosa or epithelial cells of the host bearded dragon.

They then development in the bearded dragon’s cells into meronts (schizonts). The nucleuses of the meronts become merozoites which leave to infect new cells. This continues for a few cycles until they turn into either male or female gamonts. The cells are damaged as part of this entire process.

The gamonts go through reproduction and form zygotes.

The zygotes have a wall built around them and become oocysts. Oocysts are passed in the stool and the cycle begins again.

See the lifecycle of Coccidia as shown in the chickens video by HIPRA for a visual tour of the whole cycle.

Symptoms of Coccidia in Bearded Dragons

Coccidiosis in bearded dragons can vary in severity and that will determine the degree of symptoms that will be clinically apparent. When the severity is of a lesser degree, the symptoms are not always immediately obvious but the smell is! The bearded dragons poop stinks and it’s runny!

In cases where the infection rate is low it may show as just stunted or slow growth (Divers & Mader, 2005) which takes time to become apparent. However, common signs and symptoms are:

  • Diarrhea. It is a common symptom of coccidiosis that your bearded dragon will have diarrhea and it has a foul odor. Your bearded dragon’s stool may also have blood and/or mucus in it.
  • Apathy and weakness.
  • Weight loss. Your bearded dragon will not want to eat and if it does, the feed will not convert well.
  • Poor or stunted growth. If you are thinking your bearded dragon is small for its age and it has what it needs to grow, then it would be good to check in with your vet.
  • Dehydration.
  • Depression.

Coccidia causes the destruction of the intestinal epithelium and the connective tissue that underlines the mucosa of intestine or gut wall. As it is destroyed, the clinical signs and symptoms of coccidiosis become apparent with the degree and stage of parasitism determining the level the symptoms show.

There will be pain and discomfort as the infection ramps up. The infected villi will atrophy, and the intestinal lining will slough making it difficult to uptake the nutrients in food and fluids.

In response to the damage, enteritis (inflammation of the intestine) will occur and there is a risk of intestinal intussusception. Intestinal intussusception is where the intestine slides into itself restricting food and fluids passing through. This can cut off the blood supply to the area of the folded intestine.

intussusception
Intussusception. Trapped part of intestine visible as a section, in centre part of picture. Attribution: Olek Remesz (wiki-pl: Orem, commons: Orem) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Diagnosis and Common Tests Performed by Veterinarians

Coccidiosis in bearded dragons can be detected by your veterinarian. Your vet will ask you to bring in a stool to assess the degree of coccidia infection. The stool will be used in a fecal flotation to detect oocysts under a microscope. This technique of examination is easily available, does not require any sophisticated equipment, can easily be performed and the most economical one.

You can also perform your own fecal flotations if you have a microscope and lenses. Your own tests will be a great way of monitoring your bearded dragon’s health for parasites. However, once the disease has been triggered your veterinarian will need to be able to conduct the fecal examinations.

Coccidia sporulated oocysts
Coccidia sporulated oocysts in a fecal flotation from a cat. Attribution: Joel Mills [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

The number of oocysts present in feces will help your veterinarian in proper diagnosis.

If your bearded dragon is ill from coccidiosis it will have diarrhea (smelly and likely include blood and mucus). There will be heavy loads of oocysts during first few days and then the number of oocysts shedding in feces are likely to drop. The fluctuation of the load of infection means that a single fecal sample may not contain enough oocysts for diagnosis and further testing will be required.

The number of oocysts present in the fecal sample will help in diagnosis and their number depends on several factors like:

  • Genetic potential of the Isospora,
  • Number of oocysts ingested by host,
  • Age of host,
  • Immune status of host,
  • Stage of the infection,
  • Prior exposure to infection,
  • Previously used medication,
  • Consistency of the fecal sample, and
  • Method used for the examination.

Nested polymerase chain reaction (PCR) can also be performed for the diagnosis of coccidia. For this technique tissue sample is required. Tissue sampling requires your veterinarian to perform a biopsy or other tests. This may also require a pathologist. This procedure is more complicated than a fecal float as it requires specialized instruments, well trained staff and it is not economical.

How to Treat Coccidia in Bearded Dragons

The aim of treating coccidiosis in bearded dragons is:

  • inhibit reinfection,
  • reduce the time period of the disease or illness,
  • reduce the discharge of oocysts in feces, and
  • reduce the severity of clinical signs of coccidia in the infected bearded dragon like diarrhea and intestinal hemorrhages.

Treatment consists of actions both you and your vet will take. Your vet will:

  • Maintain historical data that you provide and from events that occur under veterinary care.
  • Assign a medication program treating the disease.
  • Provide advice on means to reduce pain and severity of symptoms.
  • Provide advice on husbandry practices.

How to Help Your Vet When Your Bearded Dragon has Coccidiosis

Here are 6 super useful things you can do to help your vet when your bearded dragon has coccidia:

1. Clean thoroughly.

Cleaning has to become your obsession now. Thorough and consistent daily cleaning for the duration of treatment. The more you can interrupt the life cycle of coccidia, the less load your bearded dragon will carry giving it a chance to fight the disease. Drugs alone are insufficient and will not provide a long-term solution. For more on cleaning techniques and cleaning chemicals to kill coccidia, see the post how to clean for coccidia and get results.

2. Record everything.

Your vet will be able to provide better solutions if you can provide accurate data and information to work with. Record observation of behaviors, bowel movements (smell, consistency, time, color), time medication is given, water consumed, feeding time activity and other events.

3. Stick to the medical program.

The efforts of many a vet has been thwarted by well meaning pet owners changing medication programs or simply not providing the medicine at all. Following the medication program given by your vet.

4. Help your bearded dragon to drink.

It is likely that your bearded dragon is dehydrated and needs water. Here is a post with tips on how to get your bearded dragon to drink. Your vet will know how much water your bearded dragon needs which will probably be around 5 to 10 mils over the course of a day depending on how dehydrated it is.

5. Prevent stress.

Stress has been seen as a major contributing factor to high infection rates of coccidia in bearded dragons. Prevent stress and that includes providing the right environment and don’t force feed unless recommended by your vet.

6. Review your animal husbandry practices.

Reviewing and improving animal husbandry practices.

Medication and Veterinary Support

Your vet will provide your bearded dragon with medical program to treat coccidiosis. Some supportive medication may also be recommended to boost the immune status of the bearded dragon to reduce the severity of disease.

Your vet will request that you isolate your diseased bearded dragon and treat individually. Medical management of coccidiosis will likely appropriate drugs.

Drugs Used to Treat Coccidiosis in Bearded Dragons

The two types of drugs used to treat coccidia are coccidiostats and coccidiocidals.

Coccidiostats hinder the reproduction of coccidia (doesn’t kill the existing population present in the animal). It is expected that by reducing the coccidia population the hosts immune system will take care of the rest.

Coccidiocidals stop the reproduction of coccidia and kill the existing population.

Examples: Sulfadimethoxine (Albon) is a coccidiostat drug and Ponazuril is a coccidiocidal.

The coccidiostat drugs were often used to treat coccidiosis. However, Ponazuril has become more popular and commonly used in treatment of coccidiosis.

In research by Walden (2009) Ponazuril has shown promising effects even at low doses and side effects are not clinically apparent.

5 Tips to Protect your Bearded Dragon from Coccidia

Here are 5 easy tips to protect your bearded dragon from coccidia that you can do now:

1. Isolate sick bearded dragons.

Isolate sick bearded dragons from other reptiles. It is critical that you prevent exposure or direct contact of other healthy reptiles to the sick ones.

2. Put in place effective quarantine measures.
  • Any new reptiles to your collection, especially bearded dragons, should go through quarantine before introducing to your existing reptiles.
  • Observe a minimum quarantine period of 24 days (Walden, 2009) for new bearded dragons to ensure that it is infection free. This is the estimated prepatent time for Isospora amphibious.
3. Maintain proper sanitation.
  • Keep cages clean and dry.
  • Remove stools as quickly as possible and immediately clean the area.
  • Remove left over food daily, especially any feeders. Not only are feeders able to spread infections but some can also eat your bearded dragon, crickets are one of the guilty.
  • Protect feeding and watering equipment from fecal contamination and clean it daily.
4. Keep the concentration of bearded dragons low.
  • Avoid overcrowding and keeping lots of bearded dragons.
  • Use large housing to reduce stress and the concentration of pathogens between cleaning.
5. Avoid stress.
  • Encourage natural behaviours.
  • Be knowledgeable on the needs of your bearded dragon and provide for it.
  • Avoid stresses like abrupt change in feed, shipping or unnatural environment.
6. Schedule your annual vet check.
  • Schedule your bearded dragons annual vet check pre brumation. It is important your bearded dragon does not enter brumation with a heavy load of parasites. It may not survive that. More on brumation in the post here.

Is your bearded dragon infected? Best of luck and love to hear from you!

Can humans get coccidia from bearded dragons?

No cases of humans catching coccidia from bearded dragons or in some way cross infected has been recorded. Coccidia are in general host specific in nature. Humans cannot get coccidiosis from their pet bearded dragon.


Vets articles you may be interested in. Links take you to their websites.


References

  • Boothe, D. (2001). Small animal Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.
  • Bowman, D. D., Lynn, R. C., & Georgi, J. R. (1999). Georgis Parasitology for Veterinarians (7th ed.). Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.
  • Diaz-Figueroa, O. (n.d.) Bearded Dragon Biology and Medicine. DVM Lake Howell Animal Clinic. Florida, USA. http://www.lakehowellanimalclinic.com/pet-care/reptiles/bearded-dragon-biology-and-medicine.html
  • Divers, S. J., & Mader, D. R. (2005). Reptile Medicine and Surgery – E-Book. 2nd Ed. Elsevier Health Science.
  • Dubey, J. P. (2019). Coccidiosis in Livestock, Poultry, Companion Animals, and Humans. Boca Raton, FL. CRC Press.
  • Greiner, E. C. (2003). Coccidiosis in reptiles. In Seminars in Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine. (Vol. 12 (1): 49-56 https://doi.org/10.1053/saep.2003.127880
  • Horton-Smith, C., Taylor, E. L., & Turtle, E. E. (1940). Ammonia Fumigation for Coccidial Disinfection. Veterinary Record, 52: 829-832.
  • Kim, D. Y. (2002). An outbreak of adenoviral infection in inland bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) coinfected with dependovirus and coccidial protozoa (Isospora sp.). Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation, 14(4): 332-334. https://doi.org/10.1177/104063870201400411
  • McAllister, C. T. (1995). A description of Isospora amphiboluri (Apicomplexa: Eimeriidae) from the inland bearded dragon, Pogona vitticeps (Sauria: Agamidae). The Journal of parasitology. 81(2): 281-284. https://doi.org/10.2307/3283934
  • Ras-Norynska, M., & Sokol, R. (2015). Internal parasites of reptiles. Annals of Parasitology, 61(2): 115–117.
  • Szczepaniak, K. O.-S. (2016). Reclassification of Eimeria pogonae Walden (2009) as Choleoeimeria pogonae comb. nov.(Apicomplexa: Eimeriidae). Parasitology research, 681-685.
  • Walden, M. R. (2009, Sept 15). Bearded Dragon Health: Parasites and Adenovirus. Retrieved from The Veterinary Herpetologist: http://veterinaryherpetologist.blogspot.com/2009/09/bearded-dragon-health-parasites-and.html
  • Walden, M. R. (2009). Characterizing the epidemiology of Isospora amphiboluri in captive bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps). Ph. D. thesis, Louisiana State University.
  • Walden, M. R., & Mitchell, M. A. (2012). Evaluation of three treatment modalities against Isospora amphiboluri in inland bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps). Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine, 21(3), 213-218. doi:https://doi.org/10.1053/j.jepm.2012.06.008
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