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Do-it-yourself Fecal Exams

- tortoises & other animals -

supplies for fecal float

Supplies for a fecal float test for parasites: microscope, slides, cover slips, test tubes, and floatation medium. This one is a digital trinocular microscope with an attached USB camera on top (off picture).

Internal parasites

Internal parasites are one of the most frequently encountered medical problems in captive tortoises. Most tortoises carry some parasites and they can proliferate to large numbers when tortoises are stressed or live in crowded enclosures. When tortoises are kept in poorly sanitized environments they keep on reinfecting themselves and each other.

DIY screening

Many tortoise keepers perform periodic microscopic evaluations on their tortoises' feces to detect the presence of common parasites like pinworms and roundworms. This can be handy if you keep a large number of chelonians. For one or two tortoises, it's easier just to take a fecal sample to the vet. :O)

In addition to gross examination, two primary methods for performing fecal exams at home are the direct smear and the fecal floatation. For more accurate results, it's best to use a combination of both techniques. Scroll down for exam info.

DIY fecal exams are great for early detection and routine screening for common tortoise parasites. Frequent home screenings increase the change of detecting parasites that may only be seen intermittently in the poop. If three or more subsequent DIY fecal floats and smears are negative over a period of several weeks, your tortoise is probably free of common parasites or has a low parasite load.

DIY fecal exams also work well as pre-screenings. In other words, a positive finding will alert you to take your tortoise to a reptile veterinarian. If you do find something suspicious, it's always smart to verify the findings with your veterinarian.

Vet & medications

If you are a new tortoise keeper, always consult your veterinarian for the correct medication and dosing. Some deworming medications, like Panacur (fenbendazole, FBZ) used for nematodes (worms), are available over-the-counter, but many others need a prescription.

If you can't figure out what parasites you found in your tortoise's poop, take photos and show them to your veterinarian. It's also a good idea to take a fresh fecal sample with you for a thorough, professional lab analysis.

WARNING! Never use an ivermectin dewormer, e.g. Heartgard for dogs/cats, on tortoises or turtles. It's toxic and deadly for them!

Beneficial organisms

Not everything you see moving under the microscope is pathogenic (disease causing). Tortoises have many beneficial bacteria present in their bowels to help break down food. This bacterial action is further helped by "good parasites". Routine deworming may disrupt this essential process.ciliated protozoan

For example, Nyctotherus, a ciliated protozoan, is considered an important part of the intestinal microflora. The 2008 book "Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine Current Therapy" by Fowler, DVM, DIPL ACZM, ACVIM, ABVT & Miller, DVM, DIPL ACZM lists both Nyctotherus and Balantidium ciliates as beneficial organisms in giant tortoises and thus should not be treated. Mader's book (see books) agrees with the nonpathogenicity. Though, Klingenberg (see books below) writes that Balantidium coli is the only ciliate known to cause disease in tortoises.

To deworm or not?

As with most areas of tortoise care, there's not always a consensus of opinion among tortoise experts and keepers about parasite treatment. Many keepers feel that tortoises should not be dewormed unless a fecal exam shows a heavy enough parasite load and/or the tortoise exhibits symptoms. Others think that routine deworming is a necessity for captive tortoises to help keep the parasite burdens low.

Books

Using a microscope is fun, but it takes some practice to recognize what you are looking at. You may see so many different bits, pieces, sprinters, dashers, stretchers, and swirlers in the fecal sample under the microscope. Sometimes it's just a big party there. :O)

The books listed below will help you to identify the most common reptile parasites. For more veterinary books, see the books page.

reptile parasites

Understanding Reptile Parasites

  • by Roger Klingenberg, DVM
  • Advanced Vivarium Systems, 2nd ed, Apr 2007
  • incl. photos for parasite identification
  • popular and highly acclaimed guide, yet inexpensive
  • ISBN-10: 1882770900
  • ISBN-13: 978-1882770908
parasitology

Parasitology in Snakes, Lizards and Chelonians: A Husbandry Guide

  • by Paul Schneller, Nikola Pantchev
  • Edition Chimaira / Serpent's Tale NHBD, Aug 2008
  • incl. images for parasite identification
  • ISBN-10: 3899734734
  • ISBN-13: 978-3899734737
Medical Care of Turtles and Tortoises

Medical Care of Turtles and Tortoises: Diagnosis, Therapy, Husbandry

  • by Jifi Zych, Ond ej Hes, Jan Hnizdo, Nikola J Pantchev
  • Edition Chimaira, Mar 2011
  • up-to-date compendium on chelonian diseases
  • incl. a chapter on parasites
  • ISBN-10: 3899734939
  • ISBN-13: 978-3899734935
Health Care & Rehabilitation of Turtles and Tortoises

Health Care & Rehabilitation of Turtles and Tortoises

  • by Amanda Ebenhack
  • Living Art Publishing, 2012
  • easy-to-read rehab book
  • incl. a chapter on parasites
  • ISBN-10: 0978755650
  • ISBN-13: 978-0978755652

MICROSCOPES

1.) Simple digital microscopes

There are many digital microscopeson the market. I often use my inexpensive Celestron 44330picbiological microscope for quick fecal exams (pic below). It can be used by itself with the eyepiece as an optical microscope, or it can be hooked up to a computer to view the images digitally on the screen.

The eyepiece is 20x and the objective lenses allow 5x (100 power), 10x (200 power), and 20x (400 power) magnification. The 2 MP digital camera and attached USB 2.0 cable come with the microscope.

microscope etc for fecal float

The Celestron 44330 microscope is simple, very basic, small, and portable

I don't like looking through tiny eyepieces, so I mostly view my slides on the computer screen. That's why I like to buy microscopes with digital cameras. :O)200x magnification

The entry-level Celestron 4430 microscope is small, lightweight, and portable. It is very easy to use, even for a beginner or a kid. Just prepare the fecal slide, choose the magnification, and focus. Or attach the camera and view the slides live on the video screen.

The two photos on the right show computer screens with live video of fecal float slides using the Celestron microscope and attached camera (200x and 400x magnification).

Even though the Celestron 4430 microscope is quite simple and moderately priced, it's fine as a basic screening tool for detecting common parasites in the poop of reptiles and other animals (dogs, cats, goats, birds etc.) at 100x to 400x magnification.400x magnification

The Celestron 44330 microscope comes with a CD-ROM for Windows, but it also works as plug-and-play on Mac's and on PC's running Ubuntu (a Linux-based operating system). I have used this microscope on all three systems.

On a Windows PC, I installed the ArcSoft software that came with the microscope. On a Mac, I viewed the microscopic images with Mac's Photo Booth. On an Ubuntu PC, I used the free Cheese web cam software. In addition to live viewing, these software programs also allow you photograph and record video of your discoveries.

Note: This page was originally written in 2008. This particular microscope may or may not be available later, but I'm sure there will be many other simple digital microscopes to choose from.

2.) Trinocular microscopestrinocular microscope

A higher precision microscope with a 1000x magnification capability and special stains (coloring with dyes) may be required to identify some of the smallest protozoan parasites. For the sharpest image, a total magnification of 1000x and above requires the use of immersion oil on slides and an objective lens specifically designed for it.

My other microscope is a 40x-1600x digital trinocular microscopepic (pic) with a USB camera (imager). This microscope allows simultaneous focusing, in other words, it allows me to view images on the computer screen and through the eyepieces at the same time. This microscope is a lot bigger, heavier, and more expensive than the small Celestron above. It's definitely not portable. :O)

3.) Microscope imagers

If you already have an optical microscope, you can buy a digital imager for it. Digital imagers allow you to view microscope slides on your computer screen and photograph/record your findings. microscope imager

For example, Celestron released an updated version of their digital imager (pic) for 2010. The Celestron 44421 Digital Microscope Imager replaces the older model 44420 which has been discontinued. It has a 2 MP sensor and connects with a USB cable. It comes with imaging software for PC's, but it also works with Mac's Photo Booth as plug-and-play.

The Celestron 44421 imager is very low-priced and adapts to most types of microscopes. I've tested it on my trinocular microscope and it works just fine. For the price and reasonable quality, some users have rated it as a "best buy" microscope imager.

Note: Digital imagers are not stand-alone cameras. They need to be connected to a microscope to view and capture images and video.

FECAL EXAMINATIONS

1.) Fecal gross exam

First, perform a gross examination on the poop. In other words, inspect the poop visually for color, texture, and consistency.

Is the poop dark and solid, in other words, normal? Any diarrhea? Diarrhea can be caused by parasites or a wrong kind of diet. Does it contain mucus or blood? Both can be signs of parasites.

If you see adult worms in the poop, it's obvious the tortoise has intestinal parasites. However, not seeing any worms does not necessarily mean the tortoise is parasite free. Usually, intestinal parasites are diagnosed by finding worm eggs, larvae, or protozoan parasites under the microscope. They are invisible to the naked eye.

parasitic worm passed by a recently imported tortoise

A recently imported tortoise passed a bunch of these roundworms with feces while bathing. They were 3-5" long.

2.) Fecal smear exam

A direct fecal smear can be used to detect mobile protozoan parasites (e.g. Giardia) in the trophozoite stage (motile feeding stage). Use a poop sample that's less than one hour old. In an older poop sample, trophozoites will degenerate and became non-identifiable.

Just put a very small bit of fresh poop onto a slide and add a drop of distilled water or saline. Saline solution for rinsing contact lenses is ok to use. Stir gently with a toothpick. Put on the cover slip and observe under the microscope.

Fecal smear is a simple test to perform, but it may give a false negative, especially with low parasite levels, because only a tiny piece of poop is used for the exam.

Always use disposable gloves when dealing with feces and parasites. Disinfect all used surfaces afterwards.

3.) Fecal float exam

Performing a fecal float involves more steps than the direct smear. In addition to the microscope, glass slides, and cover slips, you'll need a floatation fluid and test tubes.

The fecal float test is used to detect parasite eggs, larvae, oocysts, and cysts in poop. The higher specific gravity of the floatation fluid causes them to concentrate on the surface (and attach to the cover slip) due to their lighter density. Consequently, parasites are easier to track down under the microscope because there are more of them in the sample.

a.) Floatation medium

Fecasol (sodium nitrate) by Vetoquinol and its generic version Fecamed are commonly used solutions for floatation technique fecal analyses. They are typically sold in one gallon bottles for $12-$30 depending on the brand and seller.dispensing bottles

I fill small, plastic dispensing bottles with floatation fluid and saline. These bottles are available in many sizes. The ones in the photo on the right are 8 oz. Dispensing bottles are great because they allow me to both squirt the solutions to float test kits and add them drop by drop. For example, to add a drop of saline to a slide or to add drops of floatation medium to a test vial to form the meniscus.

b.) Vials & kits

You can use a small vial for the poop sample, but using a fecal floatation system kitpic (Fecalyzer by Vetoquinol or a generic), makes the test process easier. Float kits are used for poop collection and testing. They include cylinders (cup), caps (lid), and strainers (green insert). You can buy these test tubes individually for less than $1 each, or in a box of 50 for $25-$30.

c.) Slides & cover slips

Microscope glass slides and cover slips are inexpensive. A box of 70-100 slides and/or cover slips costs $5-$8.

d.) Steps in fecal float

Glossary

 

Related pages: books, fecal exam section of the links page

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