There are a lot of stressful and uncomfortable things about fecal tests in veterinary medicine. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Many pet owners dread being asked to bring a stool sample to the vet, especially if their dog or cat isn’t sick. It’s a hassle to get the sample, and it’s hard to understand the value of a test for something they can’t see.
Unfortunately, once you’ve examined a few dozen fecal samples with a microscope, you become painfully aware of how many pets are harboring critters their owners know nothing about.
Those parasites include:
Not only can intestinal parasites cause your pet to experience discomfort and stress, they can harm her immune system. Many of them are also transmissible to humans.
Into the Micro-verse
Worm eggs, protozoan cysts and larvae can’t be detected with the naked eye. For that, you need a microscope. There are four main methods that can be used to test your pet’s feces:
- A smear. This one is what it sounds like: a smear of stool across a slide, which is then examined under the microscope. This is the easiest method of all, but not very reliable.
- A flotation. The stool is mixed in a special solution, allowing eggs and cysts to float to the top. This method is also fairly unreliable.
- Centrifugation. This one is similar to the flotation, but much more reliable. After the stool is mixed with the special solution, a centrifuge “spins down” the sample which helps the eggs that are present to float to the top. A microscope is then used to identify the eggs, cysts or larvae of various parasites.
- Antigen testing. This test would need to be performed at an outside lab. It is the most sensitive way to detect whipworm, hookworm and roundworm infections, even when no eggs are present.
Monitoring the Big Picture at Home
Even without a microscope, a pet’s feces can tell your veterinarian a lot about the health status of their digestive system. Are the stools tiny and hard, firm and formed, or the classic puddle of poop? Do they reek to high heavens?
Most importantly, have they changed? Being able to tell your veterinarian what your dog or cat’s baseline stool is like can identify problems early when they may be easier to treat.
The problems that can trigger stool changes include all kinds of conditions, many of them serious. They range from parasites to stress, endocrine disorders to digestive illness, even cancer. That’s why it’s as important as it is unpleasant to monitor your pet’s stool closely at home.
Collecting Samples the Fear Free Way
Many people expect their veterinarian or a nurse to get a stool sample from their dog or cat, and that is possible. However, the procedure can be both painful and frightening for the pet. For that reason, it’s best to collect the sample at home.
This doesn’t have to be stressful for the pet owner. It’s relatively easy to get a stool sample from your indoor cat’s litter box, and even easier if your cat has been going outside the box. If you let your cat outdoors, consider confining him to a single area with a litter box or, if he won’t use one, newspaper or even a box of dirt.
Dog poop can be more challenging if your pup free-ranges in the yard or dog park, so around an hour or so before your vet visit, leash her up, walk her, and see if she’ll drop the sample conveniently at your feet.
Cat or dog, the next step is the same. Cover your hand with a plastic glove or bag and scoop up the stool. If it’s extremely loose that might be difficult, but do the best you can.
Then pull the glove or bag off your hand until it’s inside-out, then drop it into another plastic bag and seal it tightly. Wash your hands thoroughly after collecting the stool sample.
If you can’t get to the vet immediately, put the sample into yet another plastic bag, seal it, and put it in the refrigerator. However, for purposes of testing the sample, the fresher the better, so don’t wait more than a few hours.
If your pet isn’t pooping; is straining to poop; or is passing extremely liquid, bloody, black, or very hard stool, consider it an emergency and head to the vet right away.
How Frequently Does Your Pet Need a Fecal?
The Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) recommends a fecal exam at least four times during the first year of life, and at least two times per year in adults, depending on the health and lifestyle of your pet.
Some pet owners question the need for frequent fecal testing, but it’s important to understand that dogs and cats spend a lot of time with their noses to the ground (and far less savory spots, too). They’re at a much higher risk of contracting an intestinal parasite infection than a human. What’s more, those parasites can find their way to us, and are particularly risky for immunocompromised individuals and young children.
Regular fecal testing is just good medicine.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
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