A Message from the Vet - July 2013
Toxoplasmosis and Cats

If you own a cat, you have probably heard of toxoplasma. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation surrounding toxoplasmosis and its relationship to cats. Some people have abandoned their cats over fears of contracting this disease. Hopefully this review article will help you to understand toxoplasma and put any fears to rest.

Toxoplasma gondii is the protozoan parasite that causes toxoplasmosis. All mammals (including humans) can contract this disease, though usually the parasite does not cause any significant signs of disease. People most susceptible to toxoplasmosis are immunodeficient individuals and pregnant women who are likely to pass the infecion on to their infants. In infants, the disease may cause vision loss, hearing loss, mental retardation, or even death in severe cases.

The most common way for people to contract toxoplasmosis is through contacting and inadvertantly ingesting contaminated soil or sand - such as during gardening, playing in sandboxes, and eating unwashed fruits and vegetables. It is also easily transmitted by eating undercooked meat of infected animals such as lamb, pork, and cattle, or drinking unpasteurized milk from infected animals.

So what's the deal with cats?? The feline species (domestic house cats, tigers, lions, etc) is the definitive host for the Toxoplasma gondii organism. This means that toxoplasma can only reproduce while living in the intestines of any cat. Cats are infected by toxoplasma by eating infected prey, and once infected, can shed toxoplasma eggs for up to 2 weeks , though millions of eggs can be produced during this time. After this period, the protozoa migrates to other parts of the cat's body and eggs are no longer passed through the feces. These eggs need to sit in ideal environmental conditions for up to a week before they become infectious to other mammals, and they may survive in the ground for over a year.

In reality, the chance of being exposed to toxoplasma from your house cat is miniscule. Infected cats will only shed toxoplasma eggs in their stool for a few days over their entire lifetime. You will not be infected by toxoplasma due to a cat bite or scratch. Particularly if your cat is kept indoors and is not hunting live prey or eating raw meat, he or she is unlikely to ever become infected in the first place.

Even cats can get sick from toxoplasmosis in rare cases, particularly immunosuppressed cats such as kittens or those infected with the feline leukemia virus (FeLV) or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). In these cats, signs may be fever, inappetance, lethargy, respiratory signs, and brain (CNS) disorders. There are blood tests that may be done to help diagnose toxoplasmosis in cats, but definitive diagnosis is made only by laboratory analysis of infected tissue samples taken from the cat. If caught early, toxoplasmosis may be treated with specific antibiotics. No vaccine is currently available to protect against this disease.

As a cat owner, things you can do to prevent toxoplasmosis in your cat include keeping your cat indoors and not allowing your cat to hunt or roam. Don't feed raw meat or unpasteurized milk to your cat, and do not allow use of your garden or yard as a cat bathroom. Clean the litter box and remove feces daily. We recommend that pregnant women and immunosuppressed individuals do not clean the litter box (have another family member do this chore), though it is certainly not necessary to abandon your cat if you fall into this category (see CDC advisory for more info).

The most important steps you can take to prevent toxoplasmosis infection in people include not eating raw or undercooked meat, unwashed fruits and vegetables, or unpasteurized milk and cheese products. Wear gloves when you garden, wash your hands well after gardening, and do not encourage feral cats on your property.

If you have any questions about toxoplasma and your cat, please contact us at 263-8863 or email askthevet@kailuaanimalclinic.com.

Jill Yoshicedo, DVM

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Last updated 2014 May 10.