Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by the single-celled toxoplasma gondii parasite.
This parasite is found throughout the world, but more than 60 million people in the United States alone may be currently infected with the toxoplasma parasite.
Few people show symptoms of toxoplasmosis because the immune system wards it off.
In pregnant women or people with compromised immune systems, however, toxoplasmosis can cause serious health problems.
Cats and Toxoplasmosis
Cats can become infected with toxoplasmosis in the same way as humans, which is by eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water.
In humans, toxoplasmosis can also be contracted by eating infected vegetables that have not been cleaned. In addition, toxoplasmosis can be transmitted by receiving an infected blood transfusion or organ transplant, though this is rare.
Eating birds, mice, or other animals infects the most common means for cats to become infected with toxoplasmosis with the toxoplasma parasite. For indoor cats, eating uncooked scraps of meat is the most common means of infection.
After a cat ingests the toxoplasma parasite, it excretes toxoplasma oocysts in its feces. In fact, it excretes millions of them every day for up to two weeks.
These oocysts become infections after one or two days. Feces usually don’t remain on cats for two days, so humans aren’t generally infected by contact with the cat.
Instead, humans become infected by accidentally swallowing the cat’s feces. This occurs by accidentally touching the feces, then touching the mouth. Accidentally touching the feces can occur during gardening or when cleaning the cat’s litter box.
Signs of Toxoplasmosis in Cats and Humans
Cats do not usually show signs of a toxoplasma infection. For this reason, it is difficult to determine what cat feces can transmit the parasite.
Children who become infected with toxoplasmosis often do not show signs at birth, either, but they develop signs later in life.
Signs of toxoplasmosis include loss of hearing, mental retardation, loss of vision and even death. For this reason, it is important for a woman who is attempting to become pregnant to be tested for Toxoplasma gondii prior to becoming pregnant.
It is estimated that approximately 3,000 children in the United States are born with a toxoplasmosis infection every year.
Testing is particularly important as many adults do not experience symptoms of toxoplasma and, therefore, don’t realize they are infected.
Some adults, however, have flu-like symptoms and suffer from swollen glands or ache and pains in their muscles. These symptoms can last over a month.
In severe cases, adults can experience damage to their eyes, brain, and other organs. These severe cases are more likely in individuals who have a weakened immune system, though eye damage can occur in individuals with healthy immune systems.
To prevent a toxoplasmosis infection in a cat, it is best to keep it indoors where it cannot eat rodents and birds. In addition, cats should only be feed cooked meat or meat that has been processed and commercially canned for cats. There is currently no vaccine to prevent toxoplasmosis.
Owning a Cat: for those with risk factors
People who are at a greater risk for toxoplasma such as those who are pregnant or who have a weakened immune system, can still safely keep a cat as a pet.
In order to avoid becoming infected with toxoplasma, however, care must be taken to keep the cat healthy and free from toxoplasma.
The best way to prevent an infection in the cats is to keep it indoors and to feed it dry or canned cat food.
A new cat who may have previously spent time outdoors or who might have been fed raw meat should not be brought indoors.
Stray cats and kittens should also be avoided, as should the outdoor areas they tend to frequent. This includes sand boxes, where outdoor cats tend to defecate often.
In addition, a person with a healthy immune system and who is not pregnant should change the cat’s litter box every day.
Failure to keep the litter box clean increases the chances of feces getting stuck to the cat’s fur and spreading toxoplasma.
If there is no one available to clean the litter box, gloves should be worn when cleaning the litter box. Afterward, hands should be washed with antibacterial soap and water.