Have you heard the rumors? A few times every year, articles go out across the internet claiming that there is a cat disease, Toxoplasmosis, wreaking havoc on humanity. Is that true or is it just click bait? My answer is click bait, but the answers to these 5 questions will help you to decide for yourself.
Image Credits: All images in this post are public domain via either Pixabay or Wikimedia Commons.
#1 What is Toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is an illness caused by one of the most common parasites in the world – Toxoplasma Gondii. All warm blooded vertebrates (including humans) are potential hosts for this microscopic parasite, but only cats can help it complete its life cycle. According to the CDC, more than 40 million humans in the U.S. alone may be infected.
Most cases of Toxoplasmosis in developed nations complete their course without the infected person having ever been aware they were infected. In the rare case that someone does develop a severe case of Toxoplasmosis, they may experience shortness of breath, neurological conditions like seizures and loss of balance, reduced vision, and red, tearing eyes.
#2 How is Toxoplasma Gondii spread?
The spread of Toxoplasma Gondii to humans is most easily conveyed through an explanation of the parasite’s 5-part lifecycle.
- Eggs called oocysts are deposited on the ground in cat feces. It will take those oocysts up to 5 days before they become capable of infecting an animal. At this point they may be ingested by an intermediate host such as a human, bird, rodent, cow, or chicken who eats contaminated soil or plants.
- Once the oocysts are ingested, digestive agents in the host’s digestive tract will open the oocysts and the parasites will emerge.
- The parasites enter host cells and form a protective layer around themselves.
- From within this protective layer, the parasite will duplicate itself every 6-12 hours. It will continue to multiply until it overwhelms it’s protective layer and then it will continue multiplying within the host cell until it i bursts and the new parasites are released to find new host cells. A person or animal is considered to have Toxoplasmosis when the Toxoplasma Gondii parasites are actively multiplying with in them.
- A cat ingests something that is infected with Toxoplasma Gondii; soil, plants, or an intermediate host such as a bird or mouse. The parasite goes through all of the stages above, but also a reproductive phase which leads to the creation of new oocysts. These new oocysts are excreted in the cat’s feces to begin the life cycle again. Cats can only excrete these oocysts for up to 3 weeks after infection.
To put it simply, Toxoplasma Gondii is only spread to those who ingest infected cat feces (most commonly on unwashed vegetables or in undercooked infected meats), from mother to unborn child, or in organ transplants from infected persons. It CAN NOT be absorbed through the skin and, therefore, is not spread through contact with an infected person, cat, or other animal.
Bonus Fact: New research has discovered why Toxoplasma Gondii only completes it’s life cycle in cats. It has to do with the way a certain enzyme is regulated within a cat’s intestines. Researchers we also able to cause Toxoplasma Gondii to finish it’s life cycle in rats.
#3 How is Toxoplasmosis diagnosed?
There are tests for both humans and pets available to test for Toxoplasma Gondii infection. These tests look for the antibodies that the immune system creates in response to the infection. Doctors and veterinarians can determine whether there is a past infection or a current infection. Antibiotics are sometimes used to treat the infection though they do not kill the parasites. Methods of dealing with a current infection in pregnant women are available.
#4 As a cat owner, should I be concerned?
Unlike many other parasite infections, Toxoplasmosis is relatively minor problem for animals and humans who are otherwise healthy. Most people and animals infected with Toxoplasma Gondii never have any symptoms. Some people who have healthy immune systems may have mild flu-like symptoms that are short lived.
Cats with healthy immune systems may experience mild diarrhea and loss of appetite. A healthy immune system is able to keep those parasites under control and their replication never makes it to the point of causing damage to the host. This is an illness that may have come and gone without you ever knowing it.
Those for whom Toxoplasmosis is the most worrisome are those with impaired immune systems and pregnant women. If a person’s immune system can not control the replication of the parasite, Toxoplasmosis can become very serious. At certain stages, the parasite can be transmitted to a baby growing inside its mother. Due to the baby’s inexperienced immune system, the parasite can cause a lot of damage. Most babies born with Toxoplasmosis have no symptoms at birth, but may develop them later in life. Pregnant women can safely have cats in their homes. Just check out the easy preventative measures below!
#5 How can Toxoplasmosis be prevented?
Don’t get rid of your cat! That cat is perfectly safe to keep – even if you have an impaired immune system or are pregnant . There are a lot of simple things that you can do to prevent Toxoplasmosis. For the most part good hygiene can keep you parasite free.
- Cook meats properly.
Make sure that the meat that you eat is thoroughly cooked to kill parasites that may be in it. DO NOT consume under-cooked meat. Fight Bac is a website recommended by the CDC that lists proper temperatures for food preparation. Be aware that feeding your cat raw meat puts them at risk for infection as well. Freezing meat for 24 hours will also kill Toxoplasma Gondii.
- Wash your veggies.
Before you eat or cook with fruits and vegetables, make sure they have been appropriately rinsed clean.
- Keep your cat indoors.
The animals that your cat may hunt and eat outside could spread the infection to your cat.
- Wash your hands, cutting boards, knives, counters, and other cookware after they have touched raw meat.
- Wear gloves and/or wash your hands after cleaning your cat’s litter box.
Wearing a protective face mask may be helpful too so you don’t breathe in any of those microscopic organisms. If you have a compromised immune system or are pregnant, try to have someone else clean the litter box if possible.
- Clean the litter box frequently.
It takes a couple of days for those oocysts to become infectious after they have left the cat’s body. Removing them from your home before they are infectious will help lower risk of infection.
- Wear protective gloves when gardening.
This will keep you from picking up any of the oocysts that may be on the ground or on the plants.
- Cover back yard sandboxes.
Keeping them covered helps to keep them from becoming a litter box for the neighborhood cats.