Cryptosporidium spp. are internal, protozoal (or one-celled) parasites that can infect a wide variety of animals, but can be highly infectious and highly fatal in reptiles. They are microscopic, so it is important to recognize the symptoms, and test for this parasite and others when bringing home a new animal from a breeder or reptile shop.
Oocysts, or the infective cells of Cryptosporidium, are passed through feces and can remain in the environment for a long time. These cells are also very resistant to cleaning solutions and extreme temperatures, and individuals may not show signs of the disease until they have been shedding oocysts into the environment for years! Strong ammonia solutions can destroy the oocysts, but should only be used on non-particulate surfaces in a well-ventilated area, with plenty of time to air the enclosure out before using to house an animal.
Symptoms of Cryptosporidiosis include regurgitation of prey items, passing undigested prey items in feces, weight loss, appetite loss, and swelling around the stomach. Diarrhea with mucus may be noted. Other parasitic infections may cause some of these symptoms as well, so it is important to run annual fecal analyses to rule out other infections. Cryptosporidiosis testing usually consists of a PCR panel on a sample from a cloacal or throat swab. If an animal is deceased, a necropsy can be performed and samples taken from the stomach and intestinal walls.
There are several treatments under evaluation for Cryptosporidiosis in reptiles, but currently the goal of diagnosis is to control the outbreak and manage symptoms for quality of life. The animal may need to be on lifelong treatments to slow the progression of the disease.
Other internal parasites:
Some internal parasites that reside inside reptiles and amphibians can be “non-pathogenic” and the animal can lead a relatively normal life, such as with pinworms or coccidia. However, these can cause problems if they become overabundant and may result in lethargy, anorexia, or other gastrointestinal symptoms. Roundworms and hookworms species are also common in captive reptiles, but these are pathogenic organisms and will cause symptoms. Some organisms, such as Giardia-like flagellates, that cause disease in humans and mammals, can be non-pathogenic residents of a reptile’s gastrointestinal system! Luckily, all of these parasites are treatable, so we recommend running a fecal analysis at least once yearly to pick up any signs of parasite infection.
Written by: Lindsay Magill