You might be familiar with the advice for pregnant women to always avoid cat litter. This is because of toxoplasmosis, a disease present in cat feces that can lead to harmful pregnancy complications or even harm the unborn child.
While cats are often considered the leading cause of toxoplasma, that isn’t true. In fact, almost all warm-blooded animals carry the toxoplasma parasite, and it is most often contracted through food-borne illnesses.
So, whether you’re expecting a baby or wondering how to protect you and your family from this feline-affiliated disease, here is everything you need to know about cats and toxoplasma.
What is toxoplasmosis?
Most people who contract toxoplasmosis are asymptomatic — this means they do not experience any health symptoms or show any signs of the disease.
Although cats are often listed as the leading cause of toxoplasmosis, they are not the primary way humans catch it. In fact, you’re more likely to get exposed to toxoplasma through food than from interacting with any feline.
Why is it dangerous?
Toxoplasmosis is a retinal infection, meaning it affects the retina in the eye. The retina is the part of your eye that allows you to see. So, a severe case of untreated toxoplasmosis could result in permanent vision loss or even blindness.
While most healthy people’s bodies can fight off the toxoplasma, pregnant women and immune-compromised people are at a higher risk of health problems.
For people who have compromised immune systems due to diseases like HIV/AIDs, the risk of complications from toxoplasmosis is much higher. Because their bodies cannot easily fight off infections, they are more likely to experience severe complications, including the risk of brain infection.
Why are pregnant women scared of being around cats?
Pregnant women can experience miscarriage or stillbirth in severe cases, or their unborn babies can be born with the infection. Babies exposed to toxoplasma during pregnancy can develop nervous system damage, hardening of brain tissue (cerebral calcification), eye problems, liver damage, and mental retardation.
While fetal death from toxoplasmosis is rare, it is still a risk. All of the combined complications make a fair cause for people to be concerned. Some women have even been told by doctors to get rid of their cats when they are pregnant.
Although cats do create and host the toxoplasma parasite in their bodies, they are only one of the causes. In fact, exposure to raw meat or eating with unclean hands is more likely to cause infection.
How do cats carry toxoplasmosis?
Cats can become infected with the toxoplasma parasite after eating raw meat, small rodents, or other prey. The parasite then goes on to create eggs called oocysts, which are passed through their feces.
When people come in contact with cat feces, they are more likely to contract toxoplasmosis. This is why pregnant women are advised not to handle their cats’ litter boxes.
Cats will produce oocysts for 10 to 14 days after exposure. The toxoplasma parasite can last for years on its own outside of the cat’s body. This is why proper hygiene and regular cleaning around the litter box and surfaces cats walk on is crucial to preventing infection.
How can you prevent toxoplasmosis?
Luckily, there are a lot of things you can do to protect you and your loved ones from the toxoplasma parasite. While most people aren’t going to experience severe illness even if they’re exposed, it’s important to be cautious and protect pregnant women and those who are immune-compromised (immunocompromised).
Only Feed Cats Dry or Wet Pet Food
Avoid giving your cats any raw meat, including fish. For one, domestic cats are not able to digest and process raw meats as well as their wild cousins. Second, raw meat is the cause of toxoplasmosis in felines.
If you want to feed your cat a natural diet, make sure that you cook any meat you give them thoroughly.
Keep Cats Indoors or on a Leash
If you take your cat outdoors for any reason, make sure they are on a leash. This is to not only protect them from running away but also avoid eating any wild animals. Catching mice or birds can cause cats to contract toxoplasma and bring it home.
Most domestic cats love being indoors; it’s in their blood. You can create an engaging, fun space inside for your cat that limits their exposure to any potential infection.
Clean Litter Boxes Regularly
The most important thing you can do is scooping your cat’s feces from the litter box twice daily. This is because it takes ~1-5 days for the toxoplasma oocyst to become infectious once it is shed in the feces. So, if you scoop the litter box twice a day, any expelled parasites should not have time to become a danger to humans.
Additionally, you should change the entire litter at least every two weeks. You should also wash and disinfect the actual litter box at least once per month.
Pregnant women should hand off litter duty to someone else to avoid any exposure.
It is also beneficial to wipe down countertops, desks, and other surfaces cats walk on.
Avoid Handling Raw Meat
Raw meat can contain toxoplasma, and it is a leading cause of infection among humans and cats alike. When you cook raw meat, consider wearing gloves. Thoroughly wash any surfaces raw meat touches as well.
Wear Gloves While Gardening
Gardening can also lead to toxoplasmosis if you accidentally digest or encounter infected soil. So, you should always wear gardening gloves and thoroughly wash your hands after handling any plants.
Clean Fruits and Vegetables Thoroughly
Because toxoplasmosis can come from soil, washing produce well is important. Whether you grow your own or buy them from the supermarket, make sure there isn’t a trace of dirt on any vegetables or fruits before you eat.
Protecting You and Your Cat’s Health
Humans and animals can live peacefully and safely with the right precautions. Although cats can carry and spread toxoplasmosis, you can drastically reduce the risk of infection. Regular cleanings and not giving cats raw meat are especially helpful.
And if you ever have any questions or concerns, reaching out to your cat’s vet, or getting in touch with a qualified vet at Cooper Pet Care, is always a good idea.