Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii), and while it can often cause little to no upset, it can be dangerous and life-threatening for others.
Most of us have heard of it before, and our understanding is that we contract it from cat faeces and pregnant women should not handle the cat litter. While this is true, T. gondii can be contracted in as many as ten different ways and can live for up to 12 months outside of a host.
While cats are a common host to spread T. gondii, there is no need to think about rehoming before you fall pregnant, some simple strategies and knowledge will ensure you and your family are safe.
WHAT IS TOXOPLASMOSIS
Toxoplasmosis is an infection from T.Gondii that multiplies within the intestine of its host (cats, kangaroo, sheep, goats, birds, cattle, pigs, poultry).
The parasite forms egg-like structures called Oocytes, which are then shed into the faces of its host, or they remain in cysts within the animal's muscle. Once in the muscle, they can then spread to other areas of the body such as the brain and lungs, making it important for pregnant and immunocompromised people to avoid eating rare or medium cooked meat from these animals.
Once a cat has contracted the infection, it will continue to shed Oocytes for up to two weeks. After this time, they are considered safe.
HOW IS IT CONTRACTED
Eventhough most of the attention with contracting Toxoplasmosis is focussed around cat faeces, it is actually more common to contract it through inadequately cooked meat.
If you are considered immunocompromised (e.g. pregnant, elderly, HIV and AIDS positive), it is important to avoid eating rare or medium cooked meat, wash hands thoroughly and avoid emptying litter trays, or use gloves at the very least.
Oocytes can are very hardy and can live in water and soil for up to 12 months. This is how mammals such as cattle, kangaroo and poultry become infected. Cat’s become infected by eating raw meat from infected animals such as rodents and birds.
Once the contaminated soil and/or meat is consumed, T. gondii multiplies within the intestine where they then produce Oocytes and shed them in faeces, continuing the cycle. Or, they embed themselves into cysts they create in muscle tissue and can last for a lifetime causing an ongoing internal upset. This can happen in all mammals… including you.
Because the spread of Toxoplasmosis relies on ingestion of contaminated faeces, soil or meat, human to human infection cannot occur. This also means that even if you are immune compromised, petting your cat and showing love and affection is not a risk, only his/her faeces are.
In a normal healthy adult, their immune system is strong enough to fight off any Oocytes that leave the cysts, and kill them off before they become a major problem. In an immunocompromised person, their body is unable to do this.
In cats, there are generally no symptoms as they are a carrier host. Cats that are not already immune can display some diarrhoea and loss of appetite, but in severe cases, the disease can affect the felines lungs, liver and nervous system. Your veterinarian can run a blood test to confirm infection if you are concerned and symptoms are treated as they appear.
When contracted by a human, the symptoms are also mild. Symptoms that are commonly seen include:
- Swollen lymph glands, especially around the neck
- Muscle aches and pains
- Generally feeling unwell
- Inflammation of the lungs
- Inflammation of the heart muscle
- Inflammation of the eye, for example, the retina (at the back of the eye).
In pregnant women, the risk is if the Oocytes cross into the placenta and infect the unborn baby. If this does occur, unborn babies, are at risk of the following:
- Skin Rashes
- Nervous system damage
- Mental retardation
- Cerebral calcification (hardening of brain tissue)
- Liver damage
- Eye problems
- Fetal death (in rare cases).
The younger the unborn baby is when the mother contracts Toxoplasmosis, the higher the risk and increased likelihood of the above symptoms occurring, but there is a lower likelihood of the mother contracting Toxoplasmosis early on.
As the pregnancy progresses and the mother's immune system lowers, the risk of Toxoplasmosis infecting the unborn child decreases, but the chances of the mother contracting the bacteria herself increases.
This is the same for all mammals.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU THINK YOU ARE INFECTED
If you suspect that you have contracted Toxoplasmosis, you should see your doctor immediately, a blood test can confirm the diagnosis.
If you are confirmed to be infected, then strict hygiene must be your priority. Any symptoms that you experience are treated symptomatically and as they appear.
But, in saying that, many adults with a healthy immune system are completely unaware that they have contracted the infection.
T. gondii is one of the worlds most common parasites, infecting around 4,392,605 people every year, which equates to around 18% of Australia’s population. Much more common than many people realise.
IS TOXOPLASMOSIS DANGEROUS FOR YOUR CAT
The T. gondii parasite is not known to be dangerous to your cat. Cats are a carrier of it and due to their often constant exposure often become immune to it.
For cats that contract the parasite for the first time, diarrhoea and a loss of appetite can be common, but for the most part, you would have no idea if it is lurking beneath the surface without a blood test to confirm it.
Cats can not directly spread it to each other or to their human companion, so relax if you are sitting there showing your cat with pats and cuddles. Infection from cats is through their faeces only.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU THINK YOUR CAT IS INFECTED
If you believe your cat is infected, make an appointment with your Veterinarian who can conduct a blood test for an official diagnosis.
Your vet can then prescribe medication that will stop the reproduction of the T. gondii in your cats system. Once the infection is confirmed, your cat will shed infectious Oocytes for up to two weeks, after this time, he is considered safe.
But remember, even though your cat is not shedding Oocytes anymore, they can still live in the soil and water for up to 12 months.
This video has a great explanation on just how far spread the effect of Toxoplasmosis is. It is even believed to be affecting our own mental health... the thought alone should scare you into watching it.
HOW TO REDUCE YOUR RISK
There are a number of ways that you can help keep yourself and your family safe from Toxoplasmosis, with the number one of all being good hygiene.
Following good hygiene, you can continue with these to reduce your risk:
- Do not eat undercooked meat yourself.
- Do not allow your cat to hunt and eat mice, birds, etc.
- Use disposable gloves when cleaning the litter tray.
- Wear gloves and protective clothing when gardening.
- Cover your child’s sandpit when not in use; this will prevent possibly infected cats from defecating in it.
- Take proper hygienic precautions when handling raw meat.
- Pregnant mums and immunocompromised people with cats who cannot get someone else clean the litter tray for them should wear gloves, clean the litter tray promptly twice a day before the oocysts can become infective and wash their hands when finished.
If you have any experiences that you would like to share, or have any questions, please reach out to me. I would love to hear from you.
Founder & Veterinary Nurse