Campylobacter species are a group of bacteria capable of causing diarrhea in cats, dogs, humans, and other animals. Commonly called Campy, it has a unique curved appearance. Under the microscope, the bacteria are similar to seagull-shaped. They are difficult to isolate as they grow in conditions of low oxygen. For cats, Campy bacteria are generally a problem for the very young. Kittens do not have mature immune systems yet; plus, because they are small, fluid loss from diarrhea hits them much harder. Also, kittens are more-likely housed in groups where fecal cross-contamination is common. They may be more likely to become infected than adult animals. That is one reason S.C.A. advocates keeping litters separate until after PCR testing and first immunizations.
Adult animals commonly have Campylobacter organisms living in their intestines but they do not experience any sickness due to it.
In humans, Campylobacter infection is a leading cause of gastrointestinal (GI) disease; infected dogs and cats can carry the organism and spread it even if they do not have symptoms themselves. For this reason, Savannah cats used for therapy in assisted living communities, near small children and similar situations should be screened for Campylobacter by fecal PCR before exposure to people with suppressed immunity. Only 6% of human Campylobacter infections are from animal exposure. That said, exposure to a cat with diarrhea triples a person’s risk for developing enteritis from Campylobacter jejuni or Campylobacter coli. Studies screening pet animals exhibiting no symptoms of infection have found surprisingly high incidences of infection. In one study in the Midwest, 24% of 152 healthy cats were positive.
After an animal consumes Campylobacter organisms, they travel to the lower small intestine, attach, and begin to multiply. They produce a toxin that destroys the lining of the intestine. The result is a bloody, mucous diarrhea (though occasionally a more watery diarrhea is common). Sometimes a fever results, appetite becomes poor, and vomiting can occur. Incubation is 2 to 5 days. The organism can survive up to a month in feces.
Once the only form of diagnosis was to see seagull-shaped organisms under the microscope. There are so many bacterial organisms on a fecal sample that finding the culprit can be tricky. For this reason, a culture or fecal PCR is often performed as a more accurate test. Laboratories such as UC Davis perform the correct pcr testing.
Treatment is with appropriate antibiotics. Erythromycin is currently the drug of choice.