The Spectre of ToxoplasmosisYes, there can be! But not for your cats, as much as for you. You may have heard of toxoplasmosis. But do you know what it is, or how to keep from catching it? Here's the lowdown.
What Is Toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by a parasite. Known as Toxoplasma gondii, it mostly infects animals, but can be transmitted to humans. A few days after infection, a person may experience flu-like symptoms that include fever or muscle aches. Your lymph glands may swell as your immune system fights off the infection. These symptoms may last for a month or longer.
In more acute cases, toxoplasmosis can cause swelling of the brain (encephalitis). It can also harm your brain, heart, liver, inner ears, or eyes. If it affects the eyes, you would likely have some sort of lesion on your eye. You may experience blurred or weakened vision, eye pain, sensitivity to bright light, eye redness and tears.
Once having had an acute infection of toxoplasmosis, it may become reactivated later in life. In the worst cases, toxoplasmosis has even caused death. If you're pregnant, it could be transmitted to your unborn baby and cause birth defects of the eyes or brain. Other infants may show no symptoms, but develop them later in life. Obviously, this is no danger to be taken lightly!
But, oddly enough, cats who have been infected with toxoplasmosis usually do not exhibit any symptoms and will only be able to spread it to people for a few weeks after being infected.
Who Is At Risk From Toxoplasmosis
The people most at risk for the more severe symptoms include pregnant women and anyone with a weakened immune system. That includes those with HIV or AIDS, but a host of people with other conditions such as undergoing dialysis, chemotherapy, or an organ transplant. Those folks get a pass on scooping out the litter box! But if you're in good health and have a strong immune system, you shouldn't have anything to worry about...except that you'll be the one in charge of scooping the litter box for a while.
How Toxoplasmosis Can Infect You
Eating undercooked meat, especially pork, lamb, or venison that has been infected with the parasite, can expose you to toxoplasmosis. So can drinking water contaminated with it. Rarely, transplant recipients may even contract the parasite from the transplanted organ.
Cat owners can also come into contact with Toxoplasma gondii. The parasite is usually contracted by cats who consume an infected rat. For several weeks afterward, they'll be excreting it in their feces. Within 1-5 days after being excreted, the parasite will become infectious. So anywhere you may come into contact with days-old cat poop -- in the litter box, the garden, or even a children's sandbox -- is someplace where you could pick up the parasite. It may even be present on the cat's fur near the anus, in case he doesn't clean himself well and any feces may be left there for several days. Or even in between the pads, if the cat has stepped in older feces. (Ew!) So holding your mouser or grooming her, especially if it's an older cat who doesn't groom as thoroughly, could put you in contact with the parasite, as well. Warm weather has us all outdoors more, so your risk of exposure can increase whether or not you have a cat, due to free-roaming cats, ferals and strays.
Preventing ToxoplasmosisFirst, keep your cat from catching rats. Some were never taught to do so by their mothers, and these cats never develop the hunting desire. But if your cat is a ratter, there may be nothing you can do about it. Keeping him indoors may help, but not always. Some may even own a cat specifically for that purpose, so prevention of ratting is not always an option.
If you're in a high-risk group, avoid adopting any new cats or handling stray cats or kittens. You don't know where those cats have been, or how clean their environment may have been. Some even choose to have a friend or family member keep their cat for a little while until their impaired time is past.
A very simple safety step is to wear gloves when scooping the litter box. Or, better yet, have someone else do it! The same goes for gardening or cleaning the kids' sandbox. Be careful not to touch your mouth area when you're working in any of these areas. When you're done, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. Also wash after grooming, holding or playing with your cat. And wash any cat toys or grooming tools thoroughly.
The litter box should be scooped daily. It takes between 1 and 5 days after an infected cat poops for any parasites present in the feces to become infectious, so frequent scooping will keep the infected feces out of the house. Keep children's sandboxes covered when they're not playing in them. This will keep neighborhood cats from thinking that's a big toilet you've set out especially for them.
If you're eating vegetables grown in your garden, or even bought at the store, make sure you wash them thoroughly. You never know whether or not they've come into contact with any water carrying the parasite. And make sure to cook all meat thoroughly to kill any parasites that may have infected it. Freezing it to below zero degrees for several days beforehand also kills the parasite. Use typical sanitary procedures in the kitchen, like thoroughly washing dishes, cutting boards, counter tops and utensils after they have touched raw meat. This includes raw food you may feed your cat. In fact, if you feed your cat a raw diet, have another family member feed him during your time of impairment.
If You Get Toxoplasmosis
Unless you're in one of those at-risk groups, you shouldn't need any treatment. Surprisingly, over 60 million people in the U.S. carry the parasite without any symptoms at all. Your immune system keeps it at bay.
If you are in one of the higher-risk groups, your doctor can perform a blood test for Toxoplasma gondii. If it comes back positive as a recent infection, you can be treated with antibiotics.
With the proper precautions, toxoplasmosis is nothing to fear. But knowledge and good sanitary habits are the best prevention.