Toxoplasmosis is one of the most well-known diseases transmitted from animals to humans (aka zoonotic disease). Although everyone has heard about this infection, especially when it comes to cat ownership, there are many misunderstandings about this topic.
The first thing to know is if you own a cat, you will not contract the disease by touching or being around your feline friend because the parasite cannot be found on the cat’s fur. There is no need to give up your cat if you or your partner are thinking about conceiving a baby. However, it is essential to take precautions. In this blog post, we discuss the essential information you need to know about toxoplasmosis in cats, including definition, symptoms, transmission, and prevention.
What is toxoplasmosis in cats?
Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. It is spread worldwide and can affect mammals and birds, but the parasite can only thrive and live through every life stage in cats.
How do cats get toxoplasmosis?
Cats can become carriers of Toxoplasma gondii through hunting and eating infected prey such as birds and rodents. This is why toxoplasmosis is more common in outdoor cats. Indoor cats fed with raw food or partially cooked meat are also at risk of getting toxoplasmosis.
Another way feline companions can get the disease is by consuming feces from an infected cat. Felines shed the parasite through feces for seven to fourteen days.
Toxoplasmosis can also be congenital, which means that kittens can get the parasite from their mother’s womb if infected. In this situation, the disease may be severe and can lead to the death of the offspring.
What are the signs of toxoplasmosis in cats?
According to International Cat Care, between 20-60% of cats will be carriers of Toxoplasma at some stage in their life, but only a few will show symptoms. Infected kittens and young cats may develop signs due to a weak immune system. Adult cats with other diseases can weaken the immune system and induce an outbreak of inactive T gondii. Symptoms include:
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Breathing difficulties caused by pneumonia
- Jaundice (yellow discoloration of the gums and tissues) caused by liver damage
- Blindness and inflammation of the eye
- Change in behavior, seizures, paralysis caused by neurological problems
Toxoplasma gondii life cycle
For this section, I wanted to quote some definitions from one of our last articles, which will help us navigate through the complex Toxoplasma gondii life cycle.
“Intermediate host: gives shelter to the larvae stage.” In this scenario, the intermediate hosts are birds and mammals such as rodents and humans.
“Definitive host: the host in which the adult stage of the parasite lives or in which reproduction takes place.” In this case, the definitive host is the cat.
Now let’s look at the lifecycle of T gondii:
- An infected cat sheds eggs (Oocysts) through feces in litter trays, soil, grass, water, vegetables, etc. The oocysts hatch within four and five days and release infectious spores. These spores can survive for months.
- An intermediate host is infected through the ingestion of the eggs in contaminated grass, vegetables, fruits, soil, water. The parasite enters the digestive tract and then goes to the bloodstream, where they become inactive cysts.
- Cats hunt the intermediate host or ingest uncooked meat and become the definitive host. Toxoplasma gondii will become active and replicate rapidly in the intestines, and then through the body, the parasite in this life stage is called Tachyzoites. When there is an appropriate immune response, the replication will start to slow down and the will become Bradyzoites.
- The definitive host starts shedding the eggs through the feces, and the cycle begins again.
How is toxoplasmosis in cats diagnosed and treated?
Sometimes toxoplasmosis can go unnoticed when the cat is not showing any signs.
If your feline friend is displaying symptoms, you should bring him to the vet for advice and diagnosis. Clinical signs and history, along with information about your cat’s lifestyle (indoor, outdoor, raw food diet), will guide your vet to the correct directions and help perform laboratory tests to rule out any other condition. For example, your veterinarian may take an X-ray of your cat’s head to rule out brain tumors if your cat is displaying any neurological problems.
Fecal examinations may not be reliable as cats only shed eggs for a few days.
A test that measures two types of antibodies related to T gondii can provide useful information for your vet (Immunoglobulin G and M). Increased levels of Immunoglobulin M suggests that the cat may have a current infection. High levels of Immunoglobulin G may indicate that your cat was infected previously and created immunity. Absence of both hints that the feline is susceptible to toxoplasmosis.
A definitive diagnosis requires histopathology, which is the examination of tissue to observe the appearance of disease cells.
Once toxoplasmosis is diagnosed, your veterinarian will give you the best course of action based on your feline friend’s needs. Treatment may involve medications that inhibit the parasites from replicating any further, additional supportive therapy for symptoms like seizures.
How can I prevent my cat from getting toxoplasmosis?
Here are some things you can do if you have a cat with a weak immune system or want to protect yourself, family, and feline companions from contracting toxoplasmosis:
- Consult your veterinarian for the best commercial food that meets your cat’s requirements (age, other conditions, lifestyle)
- Talk with your veterinarian about the possibility of keeping your cats indoors as much as you can. In the video below, you can find some tips on how to keep indoor cats happy.
Toxoplasma in people
The Centers for Disease and Control Prevention states that “…more than 40 million people in the United States may be infected with the Toxoplasma parasite”.
Humans can get toxoplasmosis by:
- Ingesting infected cat feces through contaminated vegetables, fruit or water
- Congenital transmission from an infected pregnant woman to her unborn child.
- Consuming raw or undercooked meat
Humans with a strong immune system may not show any symptoms or only display mild flu-like symptoms. Pregnant women and people with a vulnerable immune system should be very cautious as it can cause several consequences. Signs of Toxoplasma in humans include:
- Eye redness and inflammation
- Blurred vision
If you suspect that you may have toxoplasmosis, you should contact your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment.
How can I protect myself from toxoplasmosis?
- Do not eat undercooked meat
- Take protective measures when handling raw meat and remember to wash your hands before and after.
- Wash your vegetables and fruits thoroughly
- If you are pregnant or in the high-risk group with conditions such as AIDS or cancer, avoid contact with your cat’s litter tray. Ask a family member to clean the tray for you. Also, it is recommendable to prevent your cat from hunting while you’re pregnant.
- Wash your hands after outdoor activities like construction and gardening
- Wear gloves when emptying your cat’s toilet and dispose the litter in a safe place. Make sure to disinfect the litter tray with hot water.
- Clean the litter tray daily as eggs need at least a day to become infective
Toxoplasmosis can be preventable by taking the measures explained above and being extra cautious when it comes to pregnant and high-risk family members. The most common route of Toxoplasma transmission to humans is by ingestion of contaminated food. I want to reiterate that you do not need to rehome your cat as the risk of getting toxoplasmosis from your feline companion is low. Owning a cat is one of the most enjoyable experiences in life, and they deserve the best.
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Arais is a writer and virtual assistant for pet business owners and veterinarians. She is a graduated animal care assistant and has done work experience in veterinary clinics. She is going to start a degree in Veterinary Nursing In Ireland this year! When she is not writing, creating content or petting her three rescued cats, she’s volunteering in an animal sanctuary and fostering kittens!