Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by a one-celled organism called toxoplasma. Cats ingest immature toxoplasma through:
- Infected prey like rodents or birds
- Eating contaminated meat
- Drinking contaminated water
Once ingested, the toxoplasma multiplies and mature in the cat's intestine. They spread throughout the body and cause infection. However, a healthy immune system can usually prevent infection. Once the toxoplasmas mature, they enter a dormant stage. They usually remain dormant for life, but can spread to other hosts, including humans.
Toxoplasma is passed in the cat's stool. They can survive and mature on the ground, becoming infectious to other animals and humans.
It is common for a cat to be infected with toxoplasma, but it's rare for a cat to contract an infection.
Humans can get the infection from animals, and pregnant women can pass the disease to their fetuses. An infected person will display mild cold-like symptoms. If the person has a weak immune system, it can be fatal.
Humans can contract the toxoplasma organism in a few ways:
- Contact with contaminated soil or feces
- Eating undercooked infected meat, specifically lamb and pork
- Drinking unpasteurized milk, specifically goat's
Having a cat is not the most common way to get infected. More common is eating or drinking contaminated foods. Therefore, there is no need to give up a cat out of fear of toxoplasmosis.
About one-third of human infants born to mothers who have acquired toxoplasma during that pregnancy are infected. This can lead to stillbirths, eye problems, brain problems, deafness, respiratory disease, and liver disease.
Cats that are host to the toxoplasma organism will usually not display any symptoms. If the cat is actually infected, some symptoms may include:
- Loss of appetite, weight loss
- Depression, lethargy
- Difficulty breathing
- Seizures, lack of coordination (because toxoplasmosis can affect the nervous system)
- Abnormal pupil size, blindness (because toxoplasmosis can affect the eyes)
- Vomiting, diarrhea (because toxoplasmosis can affect the liver)
Diagnosis of toxoplasmosis is challenging because the symptoms are general and found with many other diseases. Your vet may perform:
- Blood tests
- Fecal sample
Your veterinarian will prescribe anti-protozoal drugs. It is important to administer the medication for as long as your vet prescribes, even if the symptoms go away.
- Do not allow your cat to roam and hunt rodents and birds
- Do not allow scavenging, cover all garbage cans tightly
- Do not feed your cat raw meat
- Avoid soil that may be contaminated: gardens, sandboxes, litter boxes
- Cook meat thoroughly
- Wash uncooked vegetables thoroughly
- Wash hands thoroughly with soap after contact with your cat, its litter box, unpasteurized milk, uncooked vegetables or meat
- Do not drink goat's milk
- Clean out the litter box daily before the organisms have a chance to mature further (if you are pregnant, it's best if someone else cleans it)
- Wear rubber gloves when gardening
- Pregnant women should avoid handling stray cats
The prognosis for kittens is guarded. There is a better chance for recovery with adults, except if it has a weak immune system.
With quick and aggressive treatment, the prognosis is much better in all cases. If internal organs have already been damaged, there may be lasting effects for life.
Medically Reviewed by Sara Ochoa, DVM