If you take your dog or cat to the veterinarian for regular checkups, you’ve probably been asked at one time or another to bring in some of your pet’s poop for a fecal exam. But what exactly is a fecal exam? Why are fecal exams essential to your pet’s health? And, arguably most importantly, how do you collect a sample for your dog or cat’s fecal exam in the cleanest way possible?! Here are the answers to the most frequently asked questions about fecal exams, as well as some useful tips for when the time comes to scoop some poop.
What is a Fecal Exam?
A fecal examination is a fairly routine cat and dog lab test that helps your veterinarian check your pet for intestinal parasites – which are a major cause of illness, or even death, in pets. Fecal exams are not just necessary for keeping your pets healthy, but they’re also essential for keeping the human members of your family healthy. Some dog and cat parasites can infect people, especially if you have very young children, very old adults, or people with weakened immune systems living in your household.
What Kind of Parasites Does a Fecal Exam Check for?
The most common intestinal parasites a fecal exam looks for are roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, giardia, and coccidia. Some of these parasites, including roundworms, hookworms, and giardia, are especially dangerous as they can be passed from pets to humans and cause zoonotic diseases (disease spread between animals and people).
How is a Fecal Exam Performed?
Since intestinal parasites live in your pet’s gastrointestinal tract, the only way to detect and identify them is by looking at a stool sample from your pet. Once a stool sample has been collected, there are three different ways to examine it:
- Smear— A smear involves smearing a small sample of stool across a glass microscope slide and inspecting it under the microscope. A smear is the easiest of the three methods to perform; finding an indication of parasites in a simple smear is often suggestive of severe infection.
- Flotation— A flotation (also known as a float) involves mixing the stool sample in a special solution that makes parasite eggs and protozoan cysts float to the surface. The parasites are then identified microscopically. This is the most common method of fecal exam used in veterinary practices.
- Centrifugation— Centrifugation involves using a centrifuge to spin a stool sample within a dense sugar or salt solution prior to performing the flotation. The parasites are then identified microscopically. When performed properly, fecal centrifugation is the most accurate of the three methods.
How Often Does My Pet Need a Fecal Exam?
None of the three methods of fecal exam are foolproof – there could be human error, problems with faulty equipment, or even problems with the parasites! (Sometimes parasites aren’t shedding their eggs, and low-grade infections might not reveal much either.) For that reason, it’s important to perform fecal exams as part of routine wellness care. This can vary, depending on your dog or cat’s lifestyle, but the more often your pets may be exposed to parasites, the more often it makes sense to check a stool sample. For instance, hunting dogs or cats with access to the outdoors may have fecal exams recommended more frequently.
According to the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC), fecal exams should be conducted “at least four times during the first year of life, and at least two times per year in adults, depending on patient health and lifestyle factors.”
How Do I Collect a Stool Sample for My Pet’s Fecal Exam?
Transporting and delivering poo to your vet may sound pretty disgusting, but it’s important that you do it correctly in order to get the most accurate results from your pet’s fecal exam. The fresher stool sample the better, so whenever possible, bring your pet’s sample to the vet the same day that you collect it. Try to pick up a sample as soon as your pet poops and put it in a plastic sandwich bag or poop pickup bag. Some people choose to double bag the sample or put the bag inside a disposable container with a lid for ease of transport. You don’t need to collect a huge amount – most fecal exams only require 1-2 grams of feces. (If you are getting your sample from your cat’s litter box, it’s okay if there’s some kitty litter on it.) If you are unable to bring your pet’s stool sample to the vet the same day it is collected, you can put it in your refrigerator – just be extremely careful not to contaminate your food or fridge.
What if My Vet Finds Parasites in My Pet’s Stool Sample?
While discovering parasites in a fecal exam is not ideal, the good news is that with early detection and treatment, most parasitic infections aren't life-threatening and can be treated with medication. Your vet will be able to prescribe medication for your pet specifically targeted for the type of parasites found, and may also prescribe medication or dewormer for any other pets in your home. Your vet will also let you know when/if any follow-up visits and additional fecal exams are needed.
How Do I Prevent Parasites from Infecting My Pet?
As with most health issues, prevention is always preferable to cure, and fortunately, with parasites, prevention is fairly easy. Nearly all common parasites can be controlled with monthly parasite preventives given orally or topically. Additionally, follow these tips to avoid contamination around your home:
- Always pick up dog poop in the yard and/or clean up litter boxes as promptly as possible.
- Never handle animal waste with your bare hands, and wash hands immediately after secondary contact.
- Properly dispose of animal feces according to local regulations.
Next time your vet asks for a stool sample from your dog or cat, you will know what they want, why they want it, and how to get it.