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Posted on 11-30-2017

We get a lot of questions and concerns regarding cats and Toxoplasmosis, especially in owners who have become pregnant and may be worried about how this disease could affect the pregnancy. First and foremost we recommend talking with your obstetrician and following their perinatal guidelines. As veterinary professionals we do feel pregnant people and their cats can live together safely by following basic hygiene guidelines and taking preventative steps to keep you and your cat healthy and happy. Please talk to your personal MD in detail regarding any specific human health concerns.

Toxoplasmosis is a disease that can be spread to humans by infected cats and can have harmful effects on a human pregnancy. Cats that go out outdoors and are hunters, or cats fed a raw diet are most at risk from contracting this disease. A cat can become infected by ingestion of  infected raw meat (from prey such as a rat, mouse or bird) releasing the parasite into the cat's digestive tract. The parasite multiplies in the small intestine and produces infectious eggs. These infectious eggs, called oocysts, are then excreted in the cat's feces. Infected cats shed the infection in their feces for approximately a two week period after initial infection.  Oocysts can survive in the environment for over a year. People are most at risk from eating raw or undercooked meat rather than from cat feces. The disease can be contracted from cat feces through gardening without gloves, playing in outdoor sandboxes, or eating raw vegetables from a garden contaminated with cat feces. Those who are pregnant or may be trying to become pregnant should not clean the litter box, or should wear gloves and take necessary precautions if they must. Litter boxes should be cleaned for all cats on a daily basis.

Owning a cat does not mean you will be infected with the disease. The disease is not spread by touching a cat or through bites and scratches. Indoor cats that do not hunt prey or are not fed raw meat are unlikely to be infected with toxoplasmosis. . This is one of many reasons most veterinarians do not recommend raw diets. In the United States, people are more likely to become infected through eating raw meat than from handling cat feces. Drinking raw, unpasteurized milk has also been linked to infection.

There are two human groups at high risk for infection with Toxoplasma; pregnant women and immunodeficient individuals. Women who are infected during pregnancy may not have any symptoms or may have symptoms similar to a cold or flu. The infection can pass through the placenta and can cause miscarriage or problems that may affect the baby in other ways.  The majority of infants do not show signs at birth, however, later in life they may develop loss of vision and hearing, mental retardation, and death in severe cases.  In immunocompromised people (cancer, organ transplant, AIDS, etc.) you may see enlargement of the lymph nodes, respiratory disease and heart disease.

As this disease is spread to cats through ingestion of raw meat, indoor only cats who are fed a cooked commercial diet are at very low risk of ever being exposed to this disease. Most cats infected with toxoplasmosis will not show any symptoms.  Disease symptoms are more likely to  occur in cats with suppressed immune systems, including young kittens and cats with feline leukemia virus (FELV) or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV).  A sick cat may have fever, decreased appetite, lethargy, pneumonia, blindness, circling, head pressing, or difficulty chewing and swallowing. Once diagnosed, toxoplamosis can be treated with an antibiotic called Clindamycin.

There is no vaccine available at this time for toxoplasmosis.

Cats and people both can be tested for toxoplasmosis through blood titers, although typically paired serum titers are necessary that can take several weeks and a positive titer does not always indicate a cat has an active infection. Transmission from cats can be prevented by keeping cats indoors, preventing cats from hunting, scooping litter boxes daily, and using good hand hygiene. Be sure to wash all foods, especially root vegetables before eating and cook meat thoroughly.

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