Another common reason for cats being on our waiting list is that the owner has become pregnant. Cat owners are often told, apparently by doctors, that they should not be around cats during pregnancy. This is because of Toxoplasmosis.
What is Toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is caused by an organism called Toxoplasma gondii - this is a protozoan parasite (single-celled organism) that cats can shed in their faeces.
As you can see in the lifecycle overview below, cats are the main, or definitive, host for Toxoplasma. They shed oocysts in their faeces, which are immature forms of the parasite that go on to infect further hosts. Toxoplasma can also infect rodents (intermediate hosts) and larger animals including farm species and humans.
|Diagram: International Cat Care www.icatcare.org|
So it is true that cats are essential for the lifecycle to take place but are not essentially the source of all infections. Most infections in humans in fact result from eating undercooked meat, gardening and eating unwashed fruit and vegetables, due to the organism being present in soil.
For people with fully functioning immune systems the symptoms are mild and flu-like, if experienced at all. However, in immunocompromised people, including the elderly, the very young, pregnant women etc., the effects can be more serious. According to International Cat Care, in pregnant women infection can cause abortion, stillbirth, birth defects and other problems affecting the nervous system and eyes. However, foetal problems can only occur if the woman is infected for the first time during pregnancy. If infected, it will only be passed on to a foetus in around 20-50% of women. In many cases, even if the foetus is infected, no symptoms will be seen but in a minority of cases the infection can result in the issues mentioned above.
Assessing and reducing the risk
According to Cats Protection, contact with cats does not increase the risk of people becoming infected with T. gondii. Cats only shed oocysts in their faeces for 10-14 days after being infected, and once passed, the oocysts only become infectious to people after the sporulation process which take 1-5 days. The risk can be easily controlled by some simple hygiene rules:
- wear gloves to clean out cat litter trays and wash hands thoroughly afterwards
- clean out litter trays daily - this will prevent oocysts becoming infectious
- avoid cleaning out litter trays if pregnant or immunosuppressed, either ask someone else to do it or use gloves and wash your hands afterwards
- litter trays should be washed out with detergent or catsafe disinfectant and boiling water, including 5-10 minute soak time
- cover children’s sandpits to prevent cats toileting in them
- avoid feeding cats raw or undercooked meat
Find out more about Toxoplasmosis in this helpful Cats Protection Information Leaflet
and in this video produced by Cats Protection