Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii that can infect nearly all mammals-including dogs, cats and humans. It is estimated that approximately 30% of cats and 50% of people have antibodies to Toxoplasmosis-meaning they have been exposed to the parasite. Toxoplasmosis has gained much notoriety in relation to pregnant women who own cats.
Cats are the species that are most frequently associated with Toxoplasmosis (although again any animal can become infected) because they are the only one that can shed the infection in their feces.Other animals that become infected, contain that infection in their tissues, and don’t actively shed it.
Cats get toxoplasmosis from eating either uncooked meat or prey animals such as birds and mice that have the encysted infection. After approximately 10 days, the cats begin to excrete oocysts in the feces-this then contaminates the soil, water and food the cat frequents, which can then serve as a source of infection for everyone else. These oocysts can survive freezing, heat, and be transported long distances by wind and water.
It is important to know that cats only shed the infective phase for 1 to 3 weeks over their entire lifespan. So, it is much more likely for a human to contract Toxoplasmosis from eating undercooked meat or contaminated vegetables; playing in children’s sandboxes; or gardening than getting it directly from a cat.
There are numerous common sense ways to avoid becoming infected with Toxoplasmosis:
- Clean solid waste out of the litter box daily. If you are pregnant, ideally have someone else do this job, otherwise wear latex gloves and wash your hands well afterwards.
- Cover all sand boxes when they are not in use to discourage cats from using them as a litter box. Ensure children wash their hands after playing in the sandbox, and don’t put their hands or toys in their mouths while playing.
- Wash and disinfect cutting boards, knives, and all surfaces after cutting and handling meat. Wash your hands well, too.
- Wash all vegetables thoroughly before eating them.
- Wear gloves while gardening. Wash your hands well afterwards.
- Cook all meat until the internal temperature reaches 152 degrees Fahrenheit to kill Toxoplasma. Never taste meat before it is fully cooked.
- Keep your cats indoors, don’t let them hunt, and never feed them raw or undercooked meat.
Cats, if they do become ill with Toxoplasmosis can show a wide variety of signs-inappetance, lethargy, fever, weight loss, jaundice, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures and other neurologic signs can occur depending on the part of the body most affected by the infection. A blood test to determine if antibodies to Toxoplasma are present combined with history and clinical signs can indicate a diagnosis of Toxoplasmosis. Therapy involves using an antibiotic called clindamycin and varying degrees of supportive care, depending upon how severe the infection is.