Can I catch that from my pet? This is a common question we hear as veterinarians, and as such have made this a recurring topic. This week we cover Toxoplasmosis… for a few reasons: 1) it’s a freaking cool parasite with a really neat life cycle and can manipulate the brain (WHAT!?!?) 2) you CAN catch it from your pet 3) But you’re more likely to catch it while gardening...
Toxoplasma gondii is a microscopic protozoal parasite that is found in the environment. It’s main life cycle is between cat and mouse. A mouse will become infected with Toxoplasma oocytes (eggs) in the soil and water. The oocytes hatch and the little baby Toxoplasma go to the rodents’ muscles and brain. This is the cool part: Toxoplasma actually changes the way a mouse thinks and causes the mouse to become attracted to cat urine, and makes them no longer afraid of cats. Basically, it makes the mouse a very easy target. The cat eats the mouse and the baby Toxoplasma grows up in the digestive tract of the cat, so that new oocytes can be spread through the stool. In humans, this brain manipulation is being studied and there are suspected links between toxoplasma infection and certain human psychoses.
Humans are “dead end hosts” of Toxoplasma, which means that the parasite can infect us, but cannot reproduce in our digestive tract like it can in the cat. Toxoplasma that is shed in a cat’s stool is infectious only AFTER it’s been out of the cat for at least 24 hours,means that scooping the litter box at the same time every day, and wearing gloves and washing hands thoroughly afterwards can decrease the risk of contracting Toxoplasmosis. In certain cases, it can cause serious illness. Those that are more prone to the serious effects of Toxoplasma are YOPIs: Young, Old, Pregnant, or Immunosuppressed. If you or any of your family members fall into one of those categories, and you have a cat that hunts or goes outside, please discuss this with your physician. This is especially true for pregnant women, as Toxoplasmosis can cause birth defects. Please note that if you are pregnant, you do NOT need to give up your cat. If you have concerns, please discuss this with your physician.
There are other much more common ways to get Toxoplasma and the two big ones are gardening and eating undercooked meat, especially pork, lamb, mutton, and wild game, as these are other common dead end hosts. Wearing gloves and thorough hand washing after working in the garden are highly recommended and always cook your meat to 145 degrees or higher. Fresh fruits and vegetables should be peeled or washed thoroughly. If your child likes to play in sandboxes, make sure to only play in ones that are covered when not in use, don’t allow your child to eat the sand, and wash yours and your child’s hands thoroughly. After all, sandboxes are just big ol’ litter boxes to a cat!
While Toxoplasma can be a serious illness for some people, there are ways to significantly reduce risk to you and your family. For more information:
Image c/o Yale Rosen on Flickr