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Coccidiosis in Cattle

Cause

Coccidiosis is caused by infection by protozoan parasites called Eimeria spp. which parasitize the lining of the intestinal tract. E. zuernii, E. bovis and E. alabamensis are the most common and pathogenic. Infection causes a loss of absorptive capacity of the gut with consequent diarrhoea and possibly dysentery. Outbreaks of disease are commonly seen 3-4 weeks after mixing groups of dairy calves.

Clinical presentation

In severe clinical coccidiosis there is sudden onset of profuse foetid diarrhoea containing mucus and flecks of fresh blood with staining of the perineum and tail. Straining with partial eversion of the rectum may occur in severe cases. Affected animals do not have an elevated rectal temperature but their appetite is greatly reduced and they develop a gaunt appearance.

More usually, chronic wasting and poor appetite are the presenting signs. Morbidity is high but mortality, even in severe cases, is low. Convalescence is protracted in all cases causing financial losses due to poor weight gains.

Fig 1: Outbreaks of coccidiosis can occur in calves associated
with contaminated surface water (note the midden in the background).

Differential diagnoses

Your veterinary surgeon will also consider:

Many calves affected - parasitic gastroenteritis (when at pasture) and salmonellosis

If only one calf is affected - intussusception, persistent infection with BVDV, necrotic enteritis, ragwort poisoning, peritonitis will be considered by the veterinary practitioner.

Fig 2: Disease outbreaks can occur in young stock associated
with contaminated accommodation, and feed areas and water
courses while at pasture.

Diagnosis

Veterinary diagnosis is based upon typical clinical findings affecting a large number of calves in the group. Interpretation of faecal examinations is not simple because there are low numbers of oocysts present in the faeces of many normal calves. The stage of infestation also greatly influences the number of oocysts present in faeces. So the demonstration of large numbers oocysts in faecal samples is helpful but speciation to determine whether they are pathogenic (capable of causing disease) is rarely undertaken in field outbreaks. There is a good response to specific anticoccidial therapy.

Histopathology findings of coccidiosis in the gut of a dead calf confirms the clinical diagnosis.

Fig 3: Coccidiosis in a group of beef calves showing sudden
onset of profuse foetid diarrhoea containing mucus and
flecks of fresh blood with staining of the perineum and tail.

Treatment

It is very important to move calves from infected pastures/premises immediately. Toltrazuril and diclazuril can be used for both treatment and prophylaxis of coccidiosis. Sulpha drugs given orally for three to five days is the standard treatment. Oral fluid therapy may be indicated in certain cases.

Fig 4: Straining with passage of only mucus.  Partial
eversion of the rectum may occur in severe cases.

Prevention/control measures

Strict attention to disinfection of buildings between batches of calves and clean feeding areas mean that coccidiosis is uncommon in modern dairy units.

Decoquinate can be used in-feed for prevention of coccidiosis in diary calves.

Disease in beef calves may result from contaminated water courses in pastured cattle during summer months where there is no other supply. Fence off all surface water wherever possible.

As survival of oocysts is possible from one year to another - calving on the same pasture each year may increase the risk of coccidiosis.

Fig 5: Weight loss in beef calves with coccidiosis.

Fig 6: Poor growth/condition loss following coccidiosis.

Economics

Weight loss and protracted convalescence may result in lower weaning weights in beef calves. Gathering calves for treatment, plus medicines, also adds to the costs of disease.

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