What is Toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is a disease in cats caused by Toxoplasma gondii, an internal parasite belonging to the group protozoa.
The parasite can be found in garden soil and raw meat. Cats become infected by killing and eating infected prey. Once ingested, it forms infected cysts within tissues and is passed into the bloodstream. There are both chronic and acute forms of infection; the former displays little or no symptoms and has little effect on health, while the latter causes severe symptoms and ill health. To make matters worse, Toxoplasmosis is zoonotic; that is, it can be passed on to humans.
What are the signs of toxoplasmosis?
A cat that has not already developed immunity against toxoplasmosis due to repeated exposure to the parasite most commonly has mild diarrhea and loss of appetite. As the parasite can affect the liver, nervous system and the lungs, other symptoms can occur:
- Abdominal pain
- High body temperature
- Issues and problems with the eyes or sight
- Respiratory (breathing) problems
- A more subdued demeanor
- Muscle weakness and tremors
- Jaundice (yellow skin, seen on the gums, inside the ears and inside the bottom eyelid)
- Abnormal walking
- Fits (seizures)
Kittens that are exposed to the toxoplasma parasite while in the womb are the most vulnerable; any of the above symptoms in very young kittens points to toxoplasmosis as a potential cause of illness.
How is Toxoplasmosis transmitted?
Most cats become infected by eating an animal that is already infected with the tissue cysts, such as birds or rodents. Once the cysts have entered the body, they reproduce and become known as oocysts. These are directly shed in the feces for one to two weeks after the initial infection.
The oocysts may also be ingested directly by consumption of infected feces, coming into contact with infected feces or infected soil, or by eating/being in contact with infected raw meat.
How is Toxoplasmosis diagnosed?
If you suspect infection or notice any of the above signs, take your cat to your veterinarian who will examine your cat for symptoms and discuss possible infective situations. Diagnosis can be made by detecting the oocysts in feces (if they are still shedding them), blood work and a special serology test that can identify toxoplasma antigen levels in the body. Of the diagnostic tools, the serology test is the most reliable; in addition, it can determine if it is an acute or chronic case.
Treatment of Toxoplasmosis
Although there is no cure, toxoplasmosis is treated with antibiotics, which relieves the symptoms very effectively.
Human risk and infection
This parasite can be passed from host to human and does pose a high risk to human health, particularly:
- pregnant mothers - toxoplasmosis can cause abortion, stillbirth and fetal abnormalities.
- immunosuppressed individuals, including the very young, very elderly, and people suffering with AIDS.
Other signs in humans are typically flu-like symptoms. Some may experience nerve problems, high body temperature, or breathing problems.
Prevention of toxoplasmosis is impossible if cats are allowed outside where they may hunt and eat infected animals. However, certain precautions can be taken which do help, including:
- Keeping cats indoors
- Not feeding cats raw meat
- Discouraging hunting
- Adding a bell to your cat’s collar - this enables sitting prey to hear cats approaching, allowing them enough time to escape before the cat catches them
- Wearing rubber gloves when gardening
- Wearing rubber gloves when cleaning litter trays or outside toileting areas
- Keeping sand pits and play boxes covered as cats often like to use these as litter trays
- Washing your hands after handling your cat or cleaning
- Pregnant mothers and those at risk should NOT clean litter trays, involve themselves with gardening or digging soil, handle raw meat or assist at lambing time (if they own sheep).
Any human, particularly those at risk, should seek medical advice from their doctor immediately if they believe they have been around an infected cat, host, area or situation.
Content reviewed by a veterinarian