Coccidiosis can affect cattle health even if no signs are present |

Coccidiosis can affect cattle health even if no signs are present

Trinity Lewis
for Tri-State Livestock News
The immune systems of cattle can by compromised by coccidiosis even if they don't exhibit outward signs of the disease. Producers are encouraged to feed in a clean environment, in bunks rather than on the ground, to help prevent the spread of coccidiosis.
Photo by Linda Teahon |

Bovine Respiratory Disease is said to be the most costly disease in the cattle industry but could an age-old bug in your corral be causing the immune system to be susceptible to such a problem? Experts suggest that even if you aren’t seeing the traditional signs of coccidiosis you should be testing your livestock for this herd-altering disease.

“The most common misconception about coccidiosis that we see is that if there is no bloody diarrhea, there is no coccidiosis. This mindset may predispose the herd to less gain and more cases of pneumonia or other diseases. Subclinical coccidiosis suppresses the immune system. So even if we don’t see it, coccidiosis could secretly be eating away your calf’s returns,” said Brandi Hudson, DVM, who with her husband, Jay, owns and operates Lazy H Veterinary Services out of northeast Wyoming.


With winter setting in, producers are more attentive than ever to droopy ears, deep coughs and greasy tailed livestock. One disease that has a self-proceeding reputation is coccidiosis. Coccidiosis is a disease resulting from a protozoan parasite called coccidian being digested and inhabiting the intestinal lining of its host. The coccidian are often spread through feces and digested by other animals. Although all species are subject to contracting the disease, the protozoa are species specific meaning coccidiosis in sheep will not affect cattle. After the coccidian enters the intestinal cell it divides and ruptures the cell. The subsequent damage results in an opportunity for more cells to be affected. Eventually the animal will be unable to properly absorb water and nutrients from the intestine. The Hudsons explained, “As the disease increases in severity, we begin to see varying signs ranging from feed inefficiency, to unthrifty cattle, to wet tails, to watery diarrhea, to bloody diarrhea and in severe cases, death.”

“Occassionally, we see nervous coccidiosis and those animals automatically receive a grave prognosis despite treatment.”

In an animal with coccidiosis, the protozoa coccidian in the intestines shed eggs in the feces. The eggs in the feces contaminate the environment waiting to take hold of its next victim. These eggs or spores can survive in the environment up to a year as they await proper moisture and temperature to turn into spores or sporulate. Cattle then expose themselves by grazing or consuming feed from contaminated areas.

Jesse Crump and his family of Crump Red Angus visits with customers across the region regarding herd health and production. In his regular conversations with other producers Crump often hears complaints of post-weaning pneumonia. “What we as producers have got to start realizing is that immune suppression is a serious matter,” Crump said. “A large majority of the time our friends and customers have pneumonia in their herd as a result of a broken down immune system. I am convinced if you took a fecal sample of all cattle, anywhere, cows and calves have a non-threatening amount of coccidiosis present. Stress is the first compromising factor in the immune system. Then the coccidiosis is allowed to take hold and multiply which further compromises the immune system which allows viral pneumonia to set in. The operations that have large outbreaks of pneumonia generally can trace that sickness back to a coccidiosis problem even though there were no obvious signs of the coccidiosis.”


As you ride through your herds this winter, instead of waiting until the bloody diarrhea stage, watch for weight loss, a poor appetite, diarrhea or a gaunt look. Jay Hudson, DVM, said that even monitoring those signs may not be enough for all types of coccidiosis, “Occassionally, we see nervous coccidiosis and those animals automatically receive a grave prognosis despite treatment,” Hudson said. Nervous coccidiosis is characterized by an uncoordinated gait, depression and/or recumbency. “Many times we don’t even see diarrhea with these neurologic calves even though we’ve seen the bloody diarrhea in their pen mates,” he said. The signs can occur quickly but are often found in herds with advanced outbreaks.

Although winter is a great time to closely monitoring your herd, successful cattlemen know to always be on the lookout. Coccidiosis is often referred to as seasonal. Many use the terms “summer coccidiosis” or “winter coccidiosis,” though both likely result from an increase in congregation. In the summer, it is usually around a shrinking water pond and in the winter it tends to be associated with stocking rates in weaning pens. “Many of our coccidiosis cases occur about a month after weaning,” Hudson said. “The owners have stocked the calves in confined areas in order to feed and keep a closer eye on them. The slight change in diet and the stress of weaning and often the concurrent weather changes sets the calf up to be vulnerable. All we have to do is increase their risk of exposure (like feeding hay on the ground) to create the perfect storm.”


The Crumps are noted for their attention to detail and keeping their operation clean. Crump said he hasn’t seen success with the 20-day preventative doses for animals who may have been exposed to coccidiosis. “We choose to use a higher treatment dose for five to seven days starting at weaning followed by the lower 20-day preventative dose. At that time, the animal’s immune system recognizes the problem and is allowed to take action because by this period the stress level has subsided.”

Hudson said that it is important to remember that the high-risk animal is the one undergoing stress in a crowded and unsanitary environment. Though coccidian can never be completely avoided, it can be managed through general husbandry. The eggs take several weeks to sporulate on the ground and require moisture and warmth. Therefore, this stage of life can be targeted by cleaning pens and keeping the environment dry. “We find in our cow/calf operations we can greatly reduce exposure by not feeding hay on the same feeding ground day after day through the winter. Left over hay builds up and animals bed on it. The combination creates an area for coccidia to thrive. We can’t forget about a clean water supply either. Shrinking water holes in the summer pasture are easily contaminated by the congregating herd. We may need to fence those areas off to encourage the herd to travel to a clean water tank. When we look at the feeder pens, proper drainage, scraping of pens and placing feed in bunks up off the ground helps significantly,” Hudson said. They also listed proper vaccination and deworming protocols has the added benefit of a healthier animal allowing for less incidence of all diseases.

This winter before an outbreak of any kind sets in, consider taking extra precautions with the threat of immune suppressing coccidiosis in mind. ❖


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