Toxoplasmosis in cats is a relatively frequently discussed topic, especially among people who are afraid to take care of a new pet. However, the question is whether there is really anything to be afraid of.
What is toxoplasmosis
Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by a parasite Toxoplasma gondii belonging to the kingdom Protista (formerly Protozoa). It is a single-cell organism that occurs in various developmental forms – it forms sporozoites accumulated in oocysts, bradyzoites in tissue cysts and tachyzoites. It sounds quite complicated, but the most important of all is the fact that it is a parasite that attacks cats, but also other mammals and birds. However, it reproduces only in the intestines of all felids, creating invasive forms (oocysts) that can spread in the environment and thus infect other animals and humans.
Toxoplasmosis infection in a cat
Homeless and outdoor cats, especially young cats, are particularly susceptible to toxoplasmosis. They become infected, usually by eating small rodents and birds that have bradyzoites in their tissues T. gondii, possibly by eating raw meat given to them by humans, especially if it is of lower quality meat, or by drinking water contaminated with oocysts. From the moment the parasite enters the digestive system, the first symptoms of the disease occur within 3 to 10 days.
However, if we would like to feed our cat whole carcasses, including mice, I recommend you read the article “Whole prey – what is it and what do you eat it with?”. There we use feed that has been bred appropriately for this purpose.
Toxoplasmosis life cycle
Symptoms of toxoplasmosis in cats
The vast majority of cats experience toxoplasmosis asymptomatically. The intestinal form of the disease, in which oocysts form in the cat’s intestines, occurs mainly in young cats. The symptoms of toxoplasmosis in cats are non-specific. Sometimes it is minor diarrhea, a slight increase in body temperature, enlarged lymph nodes and lethargy. In the event of an acute infection (which may occur especially in sick and malnourished animals), high fever, severe diarrhea, jaundice, shortness of breath, changes in the eyeball, and even death of the animal may occur. In cats with immune disorders (e.g. FIV), nervous system symptoms such as loss of coordination, ataxia or convulsions may be observed. In adult cats, toxoplasmosis usually has a chronic course, causing disorders of the digestive system (decreased appetite, diarrhea) and nervous system (disturbed motor coordination).
Since the symptoms mentioned above are not specific to this particular disease, it is not easy to diagnose toxoplasmosis in a cat. If the vet suspects it, he will definitely order appropriate tests – feces or blood.
I also recommend the article to you “Why is it worth feeding your cat healthily? – comprehensive guide”.
Treatment of toxoplasmosis in cats
Toxoplasmosis in cats is treated with appropriately selected antibiotics to combat the parasite T. gondii in the form of tablets or injections. This targeted treatment lasts 4 weeks. In addition, the veterinarian selects appropriate symptomatic support, depending on the animal’s condition, such as: administration of anti-inflammatory drugs, analgesics, antispasmodics, drips, probiotics, supplements supporting the functioning of the liver or nervous system.
Toxoplasmosis in humans
Humans – like other mammals and birds – can become infected with toxoplasmosis through oocysts found in the environment or tissue cysts from raw meat and organs of farm and wild animals. Simply owning a cat and having contact with it does not in any way increase the likelihood of getting the disease. So what are the most common causes of infection?
- eating raw and undercooked meat;
- eating unwashed vegetables and fruits;
- touching your mouth while gardening or cutting raw meat;
- lack of hand hygiene before meals;
- drinking water contaminated with oocysts;
In healthy people, the infection is most often asymptomatic. Sometimes there are flu-like symptoms (weakness, fever, muscle pain, headaches, enlarged lymph nodes) or intestinal symptoms (abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea). However, the course of the disease is generally mild and goes away on its own.
However, in people with immune disorders (especially AIDS patients), toxoplasma can attack the nervous system, causing coordination disorders, headaches, vision disorders, and also cause severe inflammation of the lungs, liver and heart muscle.
Toxoplasmosis in pregnancy
Pregnant women are particularly afraid of toxoplasmosis. Testing the level of antibodies against T. gondii is one of the mandatory in the 1st trimester. This is a very dangerous disease for the fetus because tachyzoites can cross the placenta and cause severe and irreversible damage to organs, especially the nervous system. Early detection of an active or recent primary infection (i.e. one that occurred for the first time in life) allows for effective treatment to prevent transmission of the disease to the child.
Previous toxoplasmosis and pregnancy
If a woman has already had toxoplasmosis and has the appropriate level of antibodies in her blood, she can sleep soundly. Only the first infection in the mother’s life is dangerous to the fetus. In the case of each subsequent infection, antibodies prevent the disease from developing and the parasite from crossing the placenta. The situation is slightly different in the case of women suffering from diseases of the immune system (e.g. AIDS, lupus) – however, in such cases the woman should be under the watchful care of doctors who adapt the diagnosis and treatment to the patient’s situation.
Can a cat directly infect household members with toxoplasmosis?
Absolutely not. Studies have shown that simply having a cat at home does not increase the likelihood of household members being infected with toxoplasmosis. Even if the cat had the possibility of primary infection with the parasite (e.g. by hunting rodents or eating raw meat) and started excreting oocysts in the feces – it is enough to maintain proper litter box hygiene. Cats shed oocysts 3-10 days after eating a mouse infected with bradyzoites. However, in the case of eating a sporulated oocyst, not earlier than 19 – 48 days after its consumption. Moreover, oocysts become invasive (i.e. they can cause disease) after a minimum of 24 hours after excretion. This means that all we need to do is remove excrement carefully and regularly and then we will be safe.
While on the subject of litter boxes, I encourage you to read the article “Cat toilet – which cat litter to choose”.