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The Truth About Toxoplasmosis in Cats

An Undetected Parasite

By Madeleine Burry. January 12, 2014 | See Comments

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    PetCareRx Staff Veterinarian

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Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic illness that can be caught from a cat carrying the parasite. Learn how to better protect yourself and prevent your cat from catching and spreading it.

What Is Toxoplasmosis?

Toxoplasmosis is one of the most common parasites around, and for humans, is correspondingly one of the most common foodborne illnesses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 60 million people in the United States carry the parasite. That sounds like a scary statistic, but except for those with weakened immune systems or women who are pregnant -- and carry the risk of transmitting the disease to the fetus -- the effects of this parasite are often not noticeable. The risk to a fetus is high; disabilities or miscarriage are potential outcomes. So how does toxoplasmosis in cats come about?

As well as being spread through contaminated food, this infection is caused by a parasite named Toxoplasma gondii, and can be present in undercooked or raw meat; garden soil, sand, or litter; contaminated water; unwashed vegetables that were planted in contaminated soil; or through the feces and litter of a cat carrying the parasite.

Unlike many diseases and conditions that afflict cats, toxoplasmosis is cross-species, which means that people can catch it from their pet. Direct exposure alone will not infect a person; the parasite needs to make its way into a person’s respiratory system for infection. It’s easy for an outdoor cat to become infected, since the cat may eat an animal with the parasite, or groom itself after walking in contaminated soil.

Toxoplasmosis Symptoms for Humans

For people, a toxoplasmosis infection is often a symptom-less experience. If symptoms do appear, they are most often flu-like in nature: fever, sleepiness, swollen lymph nodes. If you are concerned that you might have toxoplasmosis, you can take a blood test to rule out the infection. In general, the infection will clear on its own, without the need for any treatment, but if symptoms appear and persist, antibiotics are available for treatment. Toxoplasmosis is a risk mainly for people who have compromised immune systems or are pregnant; during pregnancy, the infection can be passed from mother to fetus, resulting in potential complications to the baby, or even miscarriage.

Toxoplasmosis Symptoms and Treatment for Cats

As with humans, there’s a high likelihood that your cat won’t experience any symptoms as a result of the parasite. If symptoms are seen, they are likely to be flu-like in nature for cats as well -- your cat may also experience fever, loss of appetite, depression, or diarrhea as a result of the infection. With antibiotics, the infection can be cleared, although note that these treatments will not kill the parasite (Toxoplasma gondii) that led to the infection. Rather, the parasite will be dormant in the cat’s body after the infection’s treatment.

That may sound alarming but it’s important to remember two important facts: the first is that after an initial infection, cats generally have an immunity, and will not be reinfected. Also note how the parasite works: after the initial exposure to the parasite, a cat will excrete the next lifecycle phase of the parasite for around two weeks. After this two week period, the parasite will no longer appear in the feces and the cat can no longer spread the parasite to others.

Litter Box Safety Precautions

The main transmission point of toxoplasmosis between people and their pet cats is the litter box, so following good hygiene is recommended. Always be certain to wash your hands thoroughly in hot, soapy water after cleaning the litter box. Scoop the litter box daily, since the parasite eggs that can be present in feces take several days to become infectious. Pregnant women should entirely avoid the litter box due to risks to the fetus. However, if that’s not possible, pregnant women should wear plastic gloves and a respiratory mask over their nose and mouth while changing the litter. The same guidelines apply for people with weak or compromised immune systems.

General Prevention Techniques

In addition to good litter box hygiene, some general precautions to prevent infection are to wash fruits and vegetables, and carefully clean your cutting board. Do not serve undercooked meat to either yourself or your cat. Allowing your cat outside will increase their risk of contracting the parasite. If you do allow your cat outdoors, make sure to keep any sandboxes for children covered, so that play areas will not be treated like a giant litter box, potentially passing the parasite along to you and your family.

More on Parasites

Can People Get Heartworms?
How Do Pets Get Roundworms?
Everything You Need to Know About Coccidia in Cats

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

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