Dec 06 2012

Avoiding Cat Parasites in Humans

How to ward off feline-carried diseases in people and other pets.

Toxoplasma gandii, a parasite carried by cats that can be passed on to humans, is something that veterinarians have been seeing for years, says Erick Mears, DVM, medical director of BluePearl’s Tampa, Fla., veterinary hospital.

“[Toxo] has always been a disease that has been in the back of our minds when we are dealing with cats and I don’t know that the prevalence is any greater now than it has been in the past,” Mears told Zootoo in a phone interview.

But the parasite’s effects on the human brain remain something of a mystery to scientists, and last month prompted the United Kingdom’s Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food to issue a report recommending further study on toxo’s risks to humans and animals.

“This thorough and detailed report points out key gaps in our knowledge about this parasite,” the group’s chief scientist, Andrew Wadge, said during the report’s release.

More than 60 million people in the United States alone are carriers of toxo, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The parasite, which typically is transmitted via cat feces, is known as being particularly harmful for the development of fetuses. That’s why pregnant women are advised not to come into contact with cat litter.

People with weak immune systems are also thought to be particularly vulnerable to contracting toxoplasma gandii.

But what’s less known, and is still being explored, is how toxo may have subtle effects on people’s brains, possibly altering their personalities, slightly, and even making them more vulnerable to schizophrenia, as The Atlantic reported in an article in March.

Toxo can also have serious impacts on affected cats, which pick up the parasite by eating some sort of animal, often a mouse or perhaps a cockroach, that was infected, says Mears. He says toxo is the underlying cause for about less than 5 percent of the diseases that he treats.

The parasite can manifest in different forms, with physical symptoms in cats ranging from fever to vomiting to neurological changes. It’s a long, unspecific list of symptoms, says Mears, which can affect different parts of a cat’s system — but, if left untreated, can go on to infect the nervous system, liver and could possibly lead to death.

People should get their cats — especially outdoor cats that may be more likely to hunt or catch little animals outside — checked for toxo regularly.

Pet owners should also be conscientious of washing their hands after they clean their cats’ litter boxes, says Mears. BluePearl Veterinary Partners, a consortium of veteriniary hospitals across the U.S., recommends changing a cat’s litter box at least once every 24 hours.

And parents might also want to think twice about what their kids could be coming into contact with during routine trips to the playground and sandbox.

“If you maintain good hygiene it will dramatically cut down your risk to exposure,” said Mears. “That is the most important thing.”

Mears says most patients he encounters are generally aware of toxo because of its long-known risks presented to pregnant women.

“But I don’t think people realize how exposed we are in general to cat feces,” he said. “I think if we just recognize the specific areas where we could be exposed to this it will help reduce cases dramatically.”
Summer Valley Veterinary Clinic
Aurora Veterinary

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