Feline toxoplasmosis – prevent infection!

Feline toxoplasmosis afflicts cats that either ingest raw meat or prey that contains the microscopic parasite Toxpoplasma gondii or that ingest material contaminated with the stool of an infected cat.

Kittens can become infected in the womb and die before birth. The stage of the parasite shed in the feces of infected cats is very hardy and can survive outdoors in soil for many months.

Although infection is fairly common in felines, most cats do not get sick. Young cats are at the highest risk; symptoms include fever, loss of appetite, lethargy, diarrhea, and weight loss. Pneumonia, liver disease, and infection of the central nervous system are more devastating possibilities; many afflicted cats do not survive. However, infection involving just the eyes often can be managed successfully.

Toxoplasmosis also poses a serious health risk for people. Infection is especially dangerous and sometimes fatal for developing fetuses and individuals whose immune systems are compromised. The good news is that prevention is fairly simple. Pregnant women and people with suppressed immune systems should heed the following recommendations (the first six apply to all pregnant women, not just those with cats):

– Do not eat raw or undercooked (rare) meat. Cook all meat to an internal temperature of at least 158°F (69°C) for at least fifteen minutes.

– Avoid eating unpasteurized dairy products.

– Wash raw vegetables thoroughly before consumption to cleanse them of any possibly contaminated soil.

– Wash hands thoroughly in soap and water after handling raw meat, raw vegetables, or unpasteurized dairy products.

– Avoid contact with soil in which cats may have defecated. Wear rubber gloves when gardening, and wash your hands thoroughly afterward.

– Avoid handling free-roaming cats or any that show signs of illness.

– Protect your cats from infection by keeping them indoors, and do not feed them raw meat or unpasteurized dairy products.

– Change your cat’s litter every day; it takes at least a day for any organisms passed in the stool to become capable of causing infection, so by changing the litter daily you dramatically reduce the chance of infection. For additional security, wear rubber gloves or have someone else change the litter.

If you are contemplating becoming pregnant, have your blood tested to determine whether you have toxoplasma antibodies (these would have formed as a result of prior exposure to the parasite). If you have antibodies and are accidentally exposed to the parasite during pregnancy, the likelihood of transmission to the baby in your womb is dramatically reduced.

If you don’t have antibodies, then you should be especially cautious to avoid exposure, as you and your developing baby are more susceptible to infection. Cats that will be living in households with pregnant women should also be tested for the presence of toxoplasma antibodies. A positive-testing cat is probably immune to infection. A negative-testing cat is susceptible to infection, and if exposed might shed the organism in the feces for a week or two afterward. In either case, be sure to reduce your cats’ chance of exposure by following the list of recommendations on the left.

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