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Is Your Cat Killing Your Family?

Tim Boyer's picture

Domestic cats and their relatives are the only known definitive hosts for Toxoplasma gondii—a single-celled parasitic protozoan that causes a disease called toxoplasmosis that has been linked to schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, rheumatoid arthritis, brain cancer, miscarriages and stillbirths.

Current estimates place approximately up to one-third of the world population having been exposed to and possibly chronically infected with Toxoplasma gondii. In fact, cases of death from foodborne illness are more often than not attributable to toxoplasmosis.

However, in spite of its prevalence, most people do not overly suffer from infection due to that their immune system helps keep the parasite in check. Typically, health warnings are limited to pregnant and immune-compromised individuals.

According to the CDC, toxoplasmosis is considered one of the top neglected parasitic infections and is typically contracted by:

• Eating undercooked meat of animals harboring tissue cysts.

• Blood transfusion or organ transplantation.

• Transplacental infection from mother to fetus.

• Consuming food or water contaminated with cat feces or exposure to the parasite from changing the litter box of a pet cat or coming in contact with yard or garden soil defecated on by a cat.

According to scientists in a recent article published in the July 10 issue of the journal Trends in Parasitology, cat poop is becoming vastly underappreciated public health problem with an estimated 1.2 million metric tons of cat feces being deposited into the environment per year.

"The accumulation of Toxoplasma gondii oocysts, found in cat feces, may be a much bigger problem than we realize because of their apparent long life and their association with some diseases," said E. Fuller Torrey, lead author of the study

Diseases of interest include those involved in mental health. According to published study last year, scientists discovered that Toxoplasma gondii can enter the brain and cause a substantial increase in the release of the neurotransmitter gaba-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) that among other things inhibits the sensations of fear and anxiety. In other words, the parasite is able to affect the host’s behavior.

Furthermore, if an unborn child is exposed to the infectious organism such as Toxoplasma gondii it can interfere with normal neural development that could lead to potential vision loss, mental disability and seizures.

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In general, infection before becoming pregnant is not a problem for a future pregnancy because the mother has developed immunity. However, if a woman is pregnant and becomes newly infected with Toxoplasma during or just before pregnancy, she can pass the infection to her unborn baby, which can lead to:

• a miscarriage

• a stillborn child

• a child born with signs of toxoplasmosis (e.g., abnormal enlargement or smallness of the head)

For now, the authors of the paper are alerting the public to the fact that this is a disease that needs to be taken more seriously and thereby requires public awareness so that people can institute preventive measures at home.

The authors recommend that to protect you and your family from exposure to Toxoplasma gondii that you should:

• Be aware that your home is likely infested with Toxoplasma gondii—whether from your cat or a prowling neighborhood cat.

• Keep sandboxes covered.

• Wear gloves when gardening.

• Use sanitary technique when handling the kitty litter box.

• Ensure young children stay away from cat fecal material.

The authors report that regions within backyards and the surrounding community where cats are present can harbor anywhere from 3 to 400 Toxoplasma gondii oocysts per square foot and that every one of those oocysts has the potential to cause an infection.

Image Source: Courtesy of PhotoBucket

Reference: “Toxoplasma oocysts as a public health problem” Trends in Parasitology, 10 July 2013; EF Torrey and RH Yolken.