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Understanding Toxoplasmosis in cats

Intro Text
You’ve probably heard of toxoplasmosis, but there is often a lot of confusion surrounding diagnosis, symptoms and treatment for humans, cats and other animals.

You may even already have been exposed to toxoplasmosis. Believe it or not, it’s estimated that up to half of the world’s population may have been infected with the disease, but most people show no signs of symptoms and don’t even know they have it. So, what exactly is toxoplasmosis and what does it have to do with cats?

What is toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is a common parasitic disease that is generally found in birds and animals and can be spread to humans. It’s an infection caused by a single-cell organism which forms egg-like structures called oocysts in its host (often cats). These oocysts are shed in the cat’s faeces and can then infect humans who come in contact with the poo.

How do cats get toxoplasmosis?
Cats are the primary culprits for spreading the disease. They can come into contact with the parasite through digging in infected soil, eating infected mice or birds, or ingesting faeces. Symptoms for cats include lethargy, fever, weight loss, breathing problems, seizures, vomiting and diarrhoea – but most cats won’t show any symptoms at all.

How do humans get toxoplasmosis?
Humans can contract the infection when picking up cat poo or cleaning cat litter. However, even if you don’t have a feline friend, you can still get toxoplasmosis through eating raw or undercooked meat, handling contaminated soil or unwashed fruit and vegetables, or by not washing your hands properly after gardening.

What are the symptoms?
Many people with toxoplasmosis don’t even realise they have it and like cats, most infected people don't show any symptoms. Sometimes, humans with toxoplasmosis will get a flu-like sickness, swollen lymph glands, fever and headaches, but in most cases these symptoms will disappear after a few weeks. However, it’s particularly an issue for pregnant women as they can pass the disease to their unborn child. That’s why it’s recommended that pregnant women do not handle cat litter and avoid contact with outdoor cats.

How do you treat toxoplasmosis?
For healthy humans, treatment is often unnecessary as the immune system will destroy the parasite on its own. Diagnosis is a simple blood test checking for certain antibodies. Pregnant women or those with a low immune system should see a doctor for further treatment. To diagnose a cat with toxoplasmosis, you’ll need to go to the vet. If your pet does have the disease, your vet will prescribe antibiotics to control the infection and prevent further growth.

Is it really a ‘mind-altering’ disease?
No. Toxoplasma gondii, the organism that causes toxoplasmosis, was previously linked to the onset of mental illness and schizophrenia. This has since been disproven and there are no definite links to any behavioural changes.

Did you know…
Beluga whales have been found in the Arctic with toxoplasmosis. Scientists think this is because of infected cat faeces washing into the sea.

Find out more about common cat worms here.