Thursday, 24 January 2013

Toxoplasmosis, Cats and Us!

Toxoplasmosis, Cats and Us!

Toxoplasmosis has been in the headlines recently, with cats being implicated as the major source of infection.  As a woman who works with cats, has a cat at home, and is hoping to have children one day, I decided to write a blog to reassure pregnant people or those with young children that there is no need to part with your beloved pet!

Toxoplasmosis is disease caused by infection with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite.  In people with normally functioning immune systems, toxoplasmosis may be mild, and pass undetected.  Commonly, it is mistaken for ‘flu.  It is most severe in ‘high risk’ groups whose immunity is impaired, such as the very old and very young and immunosuppressed people.  In general, infection with the parasite is common although disease is rare, and once you have had it, even if you didn’t realise that you did, you are then immune! 

Regarding pregnant women, if the woman has already been infected with T gondii then she will have developed antibodies, and on becoming pregnant, there is no risk to the foetus.  Infection can only be passed on to the foetus if a woman contracts toxoplasmosis for the first time during a pregnancy.  In around 20-30% of these women, the foetus will be infected and may be lost or suffer birth defects.  However, with good hygiene and common sense, this can be avoided.

In most cases, people become infected by ingesting T gondii oocysts (eggs) through contact with soil containing them, or by eating contaminated fruit and vegetables; or by eating meat containing tissue cysts.   

Concerning cats, the risk from contracting toxoplasmosis from cats is from ingesting infective oocysts from the cat’s faeces.  Cats commonly pick up T gondii from the food they eat.  Although infection with T gondii rarely causes diseases in cats, signs of illness can sometimes be seen, and include fever, loss of appetite, weight loss and lethargy.  Most cats are infected by eating meat containing T gondii, which can include raw, or inadequately cooked meat, or prey.  Once carrying T gondii, cats only shed the oocysts once in their life for a period of less than two weeks, and the oocysts are not immediately infectious.  This means that if an infected cat goes to the toilet in your litter tray, if you clean the tray everyday, there will be no problem!  Stroking a cat will not pass infection from cats to people.
If your basic hygiene is good, you have little to fear, but the following list should help you to avoid toxoplasmosis:

  • If you eat meat, make sure it has been properly cooked
  • Freezing meat for a few days should also kill any oocysts
  • Wash vegetables before eating them
  • Wear gloves when gardening, and wash your hands afterwards
  • Cover children’s sandpits when they are not in use
  • Empty and clean your cat’s litter tray everyday / when the cat has used it with detergent and boiling water, and wash your hands
  • If you are pregnant or immunosuppressed, ask someone else to clean litter trays.

On a personal note, one of our CCAs recently had a baby.  On finding out that she was pregnant, she went to her doctor and told him about the job she did here.  Her doctor had no concerns about it, as long as she wore gloves when cleaning the litter trays and washed her hands – basic hygiene!  Recent research indicates that contact with cats does not increase the risk of T gondii infection of people.  On the arrival of her baby, our colleague was fostering an old cat called Harley.  She didn’t ever have a problem with her child touching Harley, or with Harley touching her child.  “It’s just a matter of being sensible”, she said.  “You wouldn’t let children play with cat litter anyway, so they shouldn’t come into contact with faeces…and toxoplasmosis is only occasionally present in the first place.  Be sensible and all should be fine!”

To sum up, the risks of contracting toxoplasmosis from your cat are extremely small, and most people are infected from other routes, and basic hygiene and common sense will reduce any risks at all. 

I hope that this blog has been useful in putting the minds of cat-loving parents and parents-to-be at rest!

(Factual content courtesy of CP.)

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