BACTERIAL DIARRHEA IN PUPPIES & KITTENS
Campylobacter, Salmonella, & E. Coli:
Bacterial diarrheas are generally a nuisance for the adult animal but can be lethal to a small puppy, kitten, or even a human baby. Most of these problems stem from contaminated food or fecal contaminated environment. Raw food diets for pets dramatically increase the risk of human exposure. Since these conditions are also human diseases, it is helpful to have some understanding of what they are even if there are no young puppies or kittens or immune-suppressed people or animals at home. In general, when it comes to bacterial diarrhea, the smaller and less mature one is, the more serious the infection.
In humans, Campylobacter infection is a leading cause of gastrointestinal (GI) disease; infected dogs and cats can carry the organism and spread it even if they do not have symptoms themselves. For this reason, pets used for therapy in assisted living communities and similar situations should be screened for Campylobacter by fecal culture before exposure to people with suppressed immunity. Humans are also infected by consumption of contaminated food, water, or raw milk; only 6% of human Campylobacter infections are attributed to dog exposure. That said, exposure to a dog with diarrhea triples a person’s risk for developing enteritis from Campylobacter jejuni or Campylobacter coli. Studies screening pet animals for inapparent Campylobacter infections have found surprisingly high incidences of inapparent infection. In one study in the U.S. Midwest, 24% of 152 healthy cats were positive, for example.
After one consumes Campylobacter organisms, they travel to the lower small intestine, attach, and begin to multiply. They produce a toxin that destroys the lining of the intestine with the result being a bloody, mucous diarrhea (though occasionally a more watery diarrhea is described). Sometimes a fever results, appetite becomes poor, and vomiting can occur. Incubation is 2 to 5 days and symptoms typically last 3-7 days. The syndrome is similar in humans as well as in puppies and kittens. The organism can survive as long as 3 days at room temperature in fecal material and may be shed by the patient for up to four months.
Diagnosis is made by seeing the sea gull-shaped organisms under the microscope; however, there are so many bacterial organisms on a fecal sample that finding the culprit can be tricky. For this reason, a culture is often performed as a more accurate test. Because the organism is microaerophilic, special culture requirements must be met; the facilities of a reference laboratory are needed.
Treatment is with appropriate antibiotics, erythromycin is currently considered the drug of choice.
There are two syndromes associated with Salmonella: diarrhea and sepsis. Salmonella bacteria, once consumed, attach to the intestine and secrete toxins. The toxins produce diarrhea that can be severe and even life-threatening in the young. If this were not bad enough, some Salmonella can produce an even more serious “part two" (sepsis) should these bacteria invade the body through the damaged intestine, causing a more widespread and much more serious infection.
In young animals, the syndrome resulting is similar to that of canine parvovirus, thus similar treatment is expected.
Enteropathogenic E. coli also produce diarrhea in humans and animals. Rather than a secretory diarrhea as above, they simply destroy the intestinal cells where they attach. Diarrhea still results but it creates more damage to the intestinal lining.
Enterohemorrhagic E. coli is similar to enteropathogenic E. coli but with more associated inflammation. This type does not seem to be a problem for small animals though they can carry it asymptomatically.
It would seem that antibiotics would be the obvious treatment for a bacterial disease yet for E. coli it is surprisingly controversial. It seems that the use of antibiotics can enhance the synthesis of toxins by these bacteria plus often antibiotic use only serves to make E. coli more resistant in the GI tract. Antibiotics are generally reserved for those animals (or people) who seem the most sick or who have evidence of bacterial invasion in the bloodstream. Basically treatment is supportive care until the patient’s immune system regains the upper hand.
Bacterial diarrheas are an especially serious consider in the very young and in the weak or compromised, be they human or non-human. It is not unusual for apparently healthy animals to carry these organisms and shed them into the environment and feeding raw foods greatly increases the risk of this kind of latent infection. If you are considering raw food diets especially if there is someone in the home who is very young or who has a compromised immunity, please discuss the prevention of these infections with your veterinarian.
Page last updated: 10/23/2021