Toxoplasma, are cats the real hazard?

As a veterinarian I encounter many cat lovers and owners concerned and puzzled about a disease potentially transmitted by cats, called Toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by the parasite called Toxoplasma Gondii. This parasite has a bad reputation as being a cause of abortions, hence many cats are being given away or even abandoned  when there is a pregnant woman in the household. Some people decide not to give away their cat but live in fear that the cat might be a source of the infection. I hope this article will shed some light over this subject and maybe help people be aware of the infection and ways to try to avoid it.
Toxoplasma is a parasite with a complex life cycle , understanding the life cycle helps understanding the ways to avoid infection. In general the parasite has few stages of development taking place in the body of many mammals. The life cycle of the parasite consists of “prey and predator” life cycle. The “prey” being many mammals such as sheep, goats, cows, pigs etc. Those animals are being the intermediate host of the parasite. Humans are also considered intermediate host of the parasite. The final hosts of the parasites are the members of the Feline family including domestic cats. Cats being predators eat infected meat of the infected intermediate hosts and shed the parasite in their stool to the environment, hence passing the infection on. The animals exposed to the parasites get infected by ingesting the contaminated stool, the parasite crosses the intestine and lodges in the muscles and can also affect the nerve system. It is very important to understand that Toxoplasmosis is transmitted by three different ways: Most commonly by consuming raw or rare lamb, beef, or pork ; By inadvertently ingesting the parasite shed in feces of infected cats ; Third way and most concerning to people is from a pregnant mother to her fetus if a woman contracts the disease while being pregnant.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 60 million people in the United States may carry the Toxoplasma parasite, but very few have symptoms because a healthy immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness.
Another very important fact to know is that if a pregnant woman got exposed to the parasite before she got pregnant, she is immunized to the parasite which minimizes the potential damage to the unborn baby.
Although people infected with toxoplasmosis are often unaware of having this disease, typical symptoms of toxoplasmosis are flu like symptoms including swollen lymph nodes and muscle aches and pains that last from a few days to several weeks. If your immune system is normal, you are not likely to get the infection again.
Best ways to avoid getting infected by Toxoplasma are:
– Avoiding eating raw or partly cocked meat, avoid drinking unpasteurized milk or unwashed        fruits and vegetables.
– Washing your hands carefully after handling raw meat.
– Washing your hands carefully after gardening or being in contact with cat’s litter box.
– Do not allow cats to use a garden or children’s play area as their litter box.
– Clean the litter box daily.
Pregnant women and people with weak immune system should probably avoid any contact with cat’s litter box, or at least wear gloves while touching the litter.
Cats can only shed the parasite in the first few days after getting exposed. The parasite is very resistant and may survive in the environment for well over a year. Like humans, healthy cats usually do not show signs of infection. Cats with a weak immune system can potentially get very sick and show various symptoms, including nervous symptoms.
You can try to minimize your cat’s chances of getting infected by feeding your cat commercial pet food, and avoid feeding it raw or partly cocked meat, or eating infected prey such as birds or rodents. Keeping your cat indoors from its early life will minimize the chances of many hazards including exposure to toxoplasmosis.
Toxoplasmosis is best diagnosed by a blood test. Fecal test is not an accurate method for diagnosis. The disease can be treated if found on time by a course of antibiotics.
Owning a cat does not mean you will be infected with the disease. Because cats only shed the organism for a few days in their life, the chances of human exposure is small. People are much more likely to become infected through eating contaminated meat, fruits or vegetables, than from handling cat’s feces.
Please ask your veterinarian for more information and gaudiness about toxoplasmosis. I would also strongly recommend pregnant or soon to become pregnant women to consult with their health care provider about screening tests and more information about toxoplasmosis.