Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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The Truth About Toxoplasmosis

Pet Column for the week of November 3, 2003

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ann Marie Falk
Information Specialist

Myths and misconceptions surround toxoplasmosis and its danger for pregnant women. Kitty does not need to be given away the minute the pregnancy test is positive. With knowledge and preventive measures, you can easily protect your unborn child from toxoplasmosis.

Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. Chances are fairly high that you have already been exposed to the parasite and your immune system has produced antibodies against it. (Most people do not experience any problems from this parasite and consequently do not know they have been exposed.) If the mother has been infected before becoming pregnant, her baby will be protected through her immune system.

Babies infected with Toxoplasma during gestation are usually born without symptoms. Later in life, however, problems can arise. These include loss of vision, hearing, and some degree of mental impairment. About 3,000 babies a year are reported to have problems stemming from Toxoplasma.

"The reason cats get a bad rep for causing toxoplasmosis in humans is because cats are the only host where reproduction and shedding of the eggs occur. Cats are infected by preying on infected rodents and birds or by eating raw meat. The parasite is shed into the environment through the cat's feces," explains Dr. Allan Paul, a veterinary parasitologist at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana.

There are several ways the parasite can be transferred from a cat's feces to humans. The two most common routes of infection are eating raw or undercooked meat and gardening or handling soil that has been contaminated. It is possible, though not likely, to be transferred directly by contact with feces while cleaning the litter box of an infected cat. Fruits and vegetables grown in contaminated soil can spread toxoplasma if they are not washed before consumption.

"Cats generally shed Toxoplasma eggs only after the first time they are exposed to the parasite. Cats generally shed eggs for about 2 weeks. The egg itself does not become infective until it has been out in the environment for 1 to 3 days. All these factors stack the odds against a person getting toxoplasmosis from a feline friend," explains Dr. Paul.

Protecting yourself from Toxoplasma starts with safe exposure to meat and soil. The first line of defense is thorough hand washing with soap and water after touching raw meat, unwashed vegetables, soil, and even sand. Cook all meat, especially pork, all the way through. The core of the meat needs to reach 1600F.

No sampling of partially cooked recipes! Freezing meat prior to use is a good preventive measure. Beware: microwaving meat has not been proven to kill Toxoplasma. Washing all utensils or surfaces that the meat or unwashed vegetables came in contact with is important too.

If you garden, be sure to wear gloves and avoid touching your face or mouth. Thoroughly wash produce before eating it.

"Even though cats are not the main source of Toxoplasma infections in humans in the U.S., precautions should be taken by pregnant women. If pregnant, wear clean, disposable gloves to change litter and wash hand immediately after. Ideally someone else should change the litter box. Change the litter box daily so Toxoplasma does not have time to become infectious. Getting rid of your cat is not necessary," says Dr. Paul.

Feeding cats commercially packaged food reduces risk of exposure. Keep your cat indoors where it cant hunt rodents and birds, and never feed your cat raw meat. There is no currently available toxoplasmosis vaccination for cats. Prevention is the key!

For more information regarding toxoplasmosis, contact your local veterinarian.