Toxoplasmosis: How Big Is the Risk to Cat Owners?
Not very — as long as you’re careful when you scoop out the litter box
One of the world’s most common parasites, Toxoplasma gondii, also is one of the smartest. Because it especially loves cats, the crafty little bug helps to ensure the continuation of the feline species by infecting the brains of rodents, causing them to lose their fear of cat odor and become easy prey, according to a Czech study.
Easy prey — and happy prey. The parasite, which is behind the disease toxoplasmosis, also stimulates the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that provides pleasure. While this effect hasn’t been studied in humans infected with T. gondii, the same study hypothesizes that toxoplasmosis might also subtly change a human’s personality so that she develops a liking for cats. It may be one reason people who are fond of felines tend to keep several of them at a time (think: crazy cat lady).
Whether this idea true or not, toxoplasmosis can be a serious matter. An otherwise healthy person infected with T. gondii may merely develop flu-like symptoms — or none at all. However, someone whose immune system is compromised may suffer from headaches, confusion, poor coordination, nausea, vomiting, fever and seizures.
In addition, a Johns Hopkins study found a correlation between infection and schizophrenia. And for pregnant women and their babies, toxoplasmosis can be devastating: the infection can be passed from mother to fetus, causing blindness and mental disability.
Although T. gondii can infect other animals, felines are the only species they can reproduce in. And while touching a kitty isn’t likely to be dangerous, changing a litter box can be: it’s when the parasite gets pooped out that it can infect humans, explains Jeffrey L. Jones, MD, MPH,a medical epidemiologist in the division of parasitic diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A person can get sick if they’re not careful when cleaning up cat feces or scooping out a litter box, or if they inadvertently ingest cat feces or soil contaminated with it — while gardening, for example.
What’s a cat lover to do?
That said, Jones assures, “The presence of a cat in the house poses very little risk for Toxoplasma gondii infection.”
Here are some ways to minimize the risk of toxoplasmosis even more, according to Jones:
- Keep cats indoors. If they’re allowed to go outside where they can kill and eat rodents, they can become infected with T. gondii.
- Wear gloves when gardening and during contact with soil or sand that might be contaminated with cat feces. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after weeding or other yard work.
- Make sure kids wash their hands after playing outside.
- Keep outdoor sandboxes covered: an infected kitty might mistake it for a litter box.
- Feed cats only canned or dried commercial food or well-cooked table food, not raw or undercooked meats.
- If you own a cat, clean the litter box daily. The toxoplasma parasite does not become infectious until one to five days after a cat poops, so not allowing feline feces to sit around is key.
If you’re pregnant or have a weakened immune system, you should take other precautions regarding cats:
- Have someone else deal with the cat litter. If you’re the only one who can do this, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands with soap and warm water afterwards.
- Keep your feline pets indoors.
- Do not adopt or handle stray cats, especially kittens. If you’re pregnant, one baby is enough: don’t adopt a cat until after you give birth.
Cats aren’t the only source of infection
Aside from cats, you also can get toxoplasmosis from infected food. To stay safe, Jones offers these tips:
- Cook food to safe temperatures. Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of cooked meat.
- If newly-purchased meat isn’t slated for the dinner table that night, freeze it for several days at sub-zero temperature before thawing and cooking it.
- Peel or wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them.
- After contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood or unwashed fruits or vegetables, wipe down counter tops and wash cutting boards, dishes and utensils with hot soapy water (or in the dishwasher). And of course, scrub your hands with warm water and soap.