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Okay, let’s be honest. Could there possibly be a less glamorous topic than this one? Although your pet’s poop may not be at the top of the list for dinner table conversation, it’s a pretty important subject. An annual fecal test can tell your veterinarian loads (sorry) about what’s going on in the digestive system of your pet.
So What’s the Purpose of a Fecal Test?
The primary purpose of a fecal test is to check your pet’s body for the presence of parasites.
There are several different species of parasites that can take up residence in the GI tract of your dog or cat. The most common are roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, and tapeworms. Roundworms hang out in the intestines and steal nutrients from your pet’s body, while hookworms, whipworms, and tapeworms latch onto the inner wall of the intestines and feed on your pet’s blood and tissue. This obviously causes lots of problems, including anemia, dehydration, weight loss, intestinal inflammation, and diarrhea.
Other less common parasites include giardia and coccidia (one-celled protozoans that cause severe diarrhea), and liver flukes (parasites that can cause liver failure).
These parasites are picked up by your dog or cat by ingesting the eggs that are present in the environment, drinking infected water, eating another critter (such as a rodent, frog, or lizard) that’s carrying the parasite, or in the case of tapeworms, by accidentally swallowing an infected flea (an intermediate host for the tapeworm).
Keep in mind that although the primary symptoms of parasite infection are diarrhea, vomiting, and weight loss, your pet may have an infection with no symptoms whatsoever.
Obtaining a Sample
The easiest way to obtain a sample for testing is to simply pick up your pet’s first fresh poo of the morning, using a plastic sealable sandwich bag turned inside out over your hand. Once you pick it up, turn the bag right side out and seal it. If you’re not able to get it to the vet right away, you can refrigerate the sample for up to 24 hours, but the fresher, the better. For cats, don’t worry if the sample has cat litter stuck to it – it won’t affect the test results.
(Just a suggestion: if you have to refrigerate the sample, triple-bag it. You’ll be glad you did.)
The other (less desirable) way to obtain a sample is to have your veterinarian use a fecal loop, which is a long plastic rod that’s inserted into the rectum to obtain a small amount of poop. This procedure is less desirable because the amount collected is often too small to run an accurate test. Oh, and also because your pet has to have a plastic rod inserted into his butt.
Running the Test
Once your veterinarian has the sample, he or she will do a quick visual inspection to look for anything that appears out of the ordinary (such as mucus, blood, or foreign material like grass, bone fragments, or Halloween candy wrappers).
The next part of the fecal analysis usually consists of a test called a fecal flotation. A small amount of your pet’s stool sample is mixed with a solution that causes any parasite eggs that may be present to float to the top of the cup containing the solution. The vet or veterinary technician will then place a microscope slide on top of the cup. The eggs will stick to the slide, where they can then be examined under the microscope.
Every parasite produces a distinctively-shaped egg which is easy to identify when magnified. The vet may also look for evidence of other microorganisms that can cause gastrointestinal illness, like protozoa or large numbers of bacteria.
Your vet may also elect to do a fecal smear, where the sample is smeared directly onto a slide, then examined under the scope.
If your pet does have the misfortune of harboring any parasites, don’t worry…treatment is relatively simple, and usually consists of administering a medication called an anthelmintic (a fancy term for dewormer). Medication for roundworms, hookworms and whipworms is usually given orally, with a follow up dose given 2-3 weeks later to make sure that any migrating larvae are also killed. A separate medication is available for tapeworms, and this may be given either orally or as an injection administered by your vet. If the offending parasite is coccidia or giardia, your vet will prescribe oral antibiotics.
It’s always best to obtain medication for a parasite infection directly from your vet. It’s my opinion that over-the-counter commercial medications available in pet supply stores are not as safe, gentle, or effective – and for many people, the risk exists of either underdosing or overdosing their pet.
The Truth is in the Poop
Many vets recommend a routine fecal analysis as part of your pet’s annual exam, and I’m often asked if I think this is necessary. My answer is usually that it’s up to the pet guardian. If your dog or cat is healthy and not experiencing any GI symptoms, your first instinct may be to forgo the annual fecal test. However, keep in mind that some parasite infections do not cause symptoms, so running a quick fecal test (which is simple and relatively inexpensive) is a very good idea.
This is especially important if you have children in your household, since some parasites (especially roundworms) can be passed on to humans and cause some pretty horrifying infections. Children are particularly susceptible, since they don’t always wash their hands as frequently as adults, so that in itself is a strong reason to have your pet screened annually even if she’s not showing any symptoms.
If your dog is on a monthly heartworm preventive, heartworm medication will also kill any roundworms or hookworms present (some brands also kill whipworms and/or tapeworms – be sure to read the label). However, heartworm preventive will not kill other microorganisms such as coccidia or giardia.
Parasite infections can wreak havoc on your pet’s body, so detection is key. Although the fecal test is not exactly a fun water cooler topic, it is an invaluable tool for you and your vet to employ in maintaining the health of your pet.
Has your pet ever had a parasite infection? Please share your story with us in the comments below!