A broad range of news articles and myths surround infections of Toxoplasmosis, but in many cases these are scientifically inaccurate or deliberately deceptive.
The goal of this article is to explain the science behind Toxoplasmosis in cats so that you – as a pet owner – knows the facts regarding the risks to you and your cat, how to reduce the risks of infection and what to do if a suspected infection is experienced.
What is Toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis in the name given to a disease caused by a bacteria called Toxoplasma gondii. This bacteria is surprisingly common, with a vast number of different animals having been found to be infected. As well as being present in many seemingly healthy animals, it may also be found in the environment around you. Examples of how this can occur are when an infected animal dies and starts to decompose, or where eggs have been shed by infected cats.
How dangerous is Toxoplasmosis?
Being so common, a surprisingly large number of cats and humans (not to mention other animals) have suffered from an infection in the past. It is entirely possible that you yourself already have Toxoplasma in your body.
The reality is that our bodies are normally able to fight a Toxoplasmosis infection quite effectively. Over time we build up antibodies to the bacteria which renders its effects null and void. Far from being the “killer” many news articles would have you believe, in most cases Toxoplasmosis infections cause very few unpleasant side-effects. Most people experience just mild flu-like symptoms at worst. Many cats, too, show no real symptoms of being infected.
The only real risk is for immunocompromised individuals such as the very young, elderly or those undergoing immunosuppressant treatment.
How Do I Know if my Cat Has Toxoplasmosis?
When Toxoplasma enters the body it often holes up in cysts in the muscles of the body. Consequently it can be very difficult to assess whether or not a cat (or indeed human) has a current infection. While cats do shed eggs in their faeces, they typically only do this for the first two weeks or so of an infection so it is not an entirely thorough assessment technique.
Your vet will be able to take a blood sample from your cat, which will reveal whether or not your cat is carrying antibodies. Even so, presence of the antibodies simply reveals that your cat has experienced Toxoplasmosis in the past, not that it necessarily has infection right now.
Due to the bacteria’s ability to live within cysts in the body it is very difficult to eradicate. Many cats (and people) live long and entirely healthy lives while still maintaining a small population of Toxoplasma in their body.
If there are any symptoms of Toxoplasmosis in cats at all, it is that it can lead to behavioural changes. For example a cat may become lethargic, lose its appetite or experience fever. In serious situations liver damage can also occur.
Treatments for Toxoplasmosis
As previously stated, most cases of Toxoplasmosis resolve themselves, thanks to the body’s ability to fight this commonly experienced infection. While eradicating the bacteria itself is very difficult indeed, most treatments for Toxoplasmosis revolve around the use of potent antibiotics. These should cut down the size of the infection, allowing the symptoms to subside.
How do Cats Catch Toxoplasmosis?
Cats can catch Toxoplasmosis in a number of ways. The most common of these is thought to be through the capture and predation of other infected animals (such as rodents). Less commonly, Toxoplasmosis may be picked up from the environment – such as from an area where another infected cat has defecated.
Can I Catch Toxoplasmosis from my Cat?
Toxoplasmosis is known as a “zoonotic” disease. This means that it can be passed from one animal species to another. As a result, it is possible to catch Toxoplasmosis from your cat. That said, the chances are slim. As stated, most cats only shed eggs for a couple of weeks after the initial infection, and the eggs are usually not present in the fur. It is also believed that Toxoplasmosis cannot be passed on through scratches or bites.
As a result the main way in which you might contract Toxoplasmosis from your cat is through improper hygiene when emptying the litter tray.
In reality, you are far more likely to become infected with the parasite as a result of eating improperly cooked meat or from transferring bacteria from the earth to your mouth while gardening etc.
In short, while the answer is a “yes”, the chances are so slim as to not worry too heavily.
Who Is Most At Risk from Toxoplasmosis?
As stated previously, most adults are unlikely to suffer too many complications if they are unlucky enough to contract Toxoplasmosis. The real danger is for those who are immunocompromised, such as the elderly or very young.
However the greatest danger of Toxoplasmosis is for pregnant women. The reason is that Toxoplasma gondii has the ability to infect the unborn foetus. Here the bacteria can cause cysts in the brain which, in extreme circumstances, can lead to developmental issues or even miscarriage. It is therefore recommended that pregnant ladies take extra precautions to avoid infection.
How Do I Avoid Catching Toxoplasmosis?
While there is no guaranteed way to avoid contrasting Toxoplasmosis, there are a number of processes which can significantly reduce the chances of infection. These include:
- Wear gloves when emptying cat litter baskets and aim to empty them regularly so as to rid your home of potential bacteria.
- Prevent your cat from hunting prey which could be infected, such as by keeping them indoors for extended periods of time.
- Ensure that all meat is properly cooked before consumption.
- Wear gloves when gardening and try to avoid touching the face, especially the mouth.