Toxoplasmosis in Cats
You may have heard that doctors advise women, considering pregnancy or who become pregnant, to get rid of their cat(s) or have their partner clean the litter box(es) for the duration of their pregnancy due to the concern of contracting toxoplasmosis. Before taking any drastic measures such as finding a new home for your cat, talk both to your obstetrician as well as your veterinarian for accurate information and advice. A note of caution when reading information on the internet: while there is a lot of valid and accurate information there is also inaccurate untruths. Here we’ll talk about toxoplasmosis in cats, the risk of getting this infection from your cat, and how to stay safe.
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What exactly is toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is an infection in cats caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) that enters the body through the mouth. The organism invades and lives in cells throughout the cat. It can also infect most warm-blooded animals, including humans. Toxoplasma is usually transmitted to people through contaminated food.
Can people get toxoplasmosis?
Yes, T. gondii is zoonotic, which means that it’s transmissible from animals to people. People (and cats) are usually infected when they eat raw or undercooked meat that contains T. gondii oocysts (a form of egg). These are a part of the lifecycle of T. gondii. Other less likely types of exposure include a cat’s litterbox, outdoor sandboxes, and gardening as cats will defecate or have a bowel movement in these areas. T. gondii oocysts are passed in the cat’s stool which can be transmitted to people when cleaning the litter box, outdoor sandbox or when gardening.
If a pregnant woman gets infected with T. gondii during her pregnancy there is an increased risk of transmission and severe problems to her unborn baby. For accurate and up-to-date information about toxoplasmosis talk to your primary doctor and your cat’s veterinarian.
How do cats get toxoplasmosis?
A cat’s natural instinct to hunt and eat their prey, such as mice and other small mammals, allows transmission of T. gondii. Toxoplasmosis can also be transmitted to cats through contaminated water or food. Kittens can get infected through the placenta before birth or through the milk when nursing an infected queen (unspayed female cat).
Signs of Toxoplasmosis in Cats
Symptoms of T. gondii in cats are vague and nonspecific. Toxoplasmosis can cause diarrhea, but healthy adult cats usually have no symptoms. Female cats in the postpartum period (just after giving birth) often have decreased energy, lack of appetite, and sometimes fever.
Kittens sometimes develop fading kitten syndrome, which includes vague signs such as difficulty breathing, not eating, no energy, and eye and neurologic symptoms. Mature or senior cats can have symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, no appetite, decreased energy, difficulty breathing, lameness, muscle pain, and neurologic signs (such as difficulty walking, seizures, and partial paralysis).
Often, kittens who contract toxoplasmosis have mild symptoms, shed oocysts, and then the organism goes dormant (or sleeps). However, the cat remains infected for life. Adult cats that have immune problems such as feline leukemia virus or take immunosuppressive medication may experience the symptoms listed above, requiring treatment and medication.
In rare cases, toxoplasmosis infection in cats can be severe, resulting in death.
How do I know if my cat has toxoplasmosis?
Cats may often be suspected of having T. gondii, and treatment begins before getting specific test results. Certain blood tests, cytology, urinalysis, x-rays, and stool tests help determine if a cat is infected with T. gondii.
How is toxoplasmosis treated in cats?
Treatment for toxoplasmosis includes supportive care and antibiotics. Antibiotics may be prescribed for up to 4 weeks. These medications stop T. gondii from replicating but cannot completely eliminate it, making toxoplasmosis a life-long illness.
How can I prevent my cat from getting toxoplasmosis?
While toxoplasmosis is widespread, most cats don’t show symptoms and live a normal life. However, the following preventive steps are recommended for your cat:
- Do not feed your cat raw, uncooked meat
- Place a collar with a bell attached to keep your cat from being a successful hunter
- Scoop litterboxes daily
- Clean and disinfect litterboxes with boiling water once a week
- Cover outdoor sandboxes to keep feral or wild cats out
While studies show that pet parents usually do not get infected with toxoplasmosis from their cat, the following preventive steps are recommended for people:
- Wash hands and surfaces after handling raw meat or cleaning litterboxes.
- Wear gloves when gardening and wash vegetables and hands thoroughly after gardening.
- Do not eat raw or undercooked meat or unpasteurized dairy products.
- Boil or filter drinking water from unreliable sources.
- Pregnant women must avoid contact with soil, cat litter, raw meat, and cat stool.
- Wash or cook produce thoroughly.
- Immune-suppressed or pregnant pet owners should have someone else clean the litterboxes or wear disposable gloves, face masks, and safety glasses.
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