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Campylobacter in cats and dogs

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Campylobacter is a bacteria that can cause mucousy or watery diarrhea in dogs and cats. This bacteria is a common cause of diarrhea in people, and many times, the person who has diarrhea actually got it from their pet.

What animals are more likely to get Campylobacter?

This bacteria is most commonly diagnosed in puppies under 6 months of age or kittens under 12 months of age. While any animal can get campylobacter it is most likely to cause problems in young animals.

What are the symptoms?

Many animals can carry campylobacter and not have any symptoms at all. (You can read more about this later in the article). But, if an animal gets sick with campylobacteriosis they will usually have the following symptoms which start happening 2-5 days after getting infected:

  • mucousy or watery diarrhea
  • lack of appetite
  • possibly vomiting
  • possible fever for 3-7 days

The diarrhea usually lasts for 7 to 10 days, but there can be some animals that can get recurrences of diarrhea or even have chronic diarrhea.

How does an animal get campylobacter?

Somehow the bacteria has to be ingested. This is usually a result of fecal matter being swallowed. It could be picked up in water, or from contaminated poultry, meat or milk products. The organisms can live for 4 weeks in feces. They can live for 4 days in water.

How is campylobacter diagnosed?

There are a few ways to diagnose this bacterial infection:

  • The organisms can be seen on a stained smear of fresh feces. The bacteria are gram negative rods that look like seagulls.
  • A stool sample culture can determine if there is campylobacter and also which species.
  • DNA PCR testing of feces can give a diagnosis as well.

What if my dog or cat is diagnosed with campylobacter but isn't sick?

Some animals can be carriers of campylobacter and never get sick. One study showed that 40% of dogs who had been in a kennel or a shelter had a positive stool culture for campylobacter. These animals who are shedding campylobacter can do so for up to 4 months. In that time period, it is possible for the dog or cat to transmit the bacteria to its human family.

dog pooping
Photo courtesy Westside Shooter, flickr

If my pet has diarrhea and tested positive for campylobacter, how should it be treated?

If a dog or cat tests positive for campylobacter there is no way of knowing for sure if the campylobacter is the cause of the diarrhea. Many times, a pet will test positive for campylobacter, but the actual cause of the diarrhea can be something else. However, in most cases, if campylobacter is present then we do tend to treat with antibiotics. One of the main reasons to do so is to prevent the animal from spreading the bacteria to a human. We generally use one of the following antibiotics to treat the condition:

  • Erythromycin
  • Enrofloxacin (Baytril)
  • Azithromycin (less commonly used)
  • Doxycycline (less commonly used)
  • Tylosin (less commonly used)

We are not sure if antibiotics kill the bacteria, but it is believed that it can prevent the animal from spreading the bacteria to others.

Your vet may also suggest other treatments for diarrhea such as special food, probiotics, and possibly even fluid therapy or electrolytes if your pet is dehydrated.

Can animals spread Campylobacter to people?

There is definitely a risk of a person getting campylobacter from their pet. Campylobacter is the cause of 5-11% of all human cases of diarrhea. 5% of these cases are believed to have come from the person's pets. The remainder are because of eating undercooked contaminated meat.

How can I disinfect campylobacter?

Campylobacter is easily disinfected with bleach. So, if your pet has been diagnosed with campylobacter and has had diarrhea in the house, cleaning with a bleach solution (if possible) will help. It is also important to thoroughly wash your hands after handling any fecal material.

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Dr. MarieDr. Marie is a veterinarian who practices in a busy animal hospital in Ottawa, Ontario. She created Ask A Vet Question as a resource for good, accurate veterinary advice online. Dr. Marie treats dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, and rats. She has been a vet since 1999.

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