Many cat owners have heard of toxoplasmosis without being able to imagine anything concrete about it. We explain which symptoms you can use to recognize the disease, what is hidden behind the toxoplasma gondii parasite, and how you can prevent infection.
Toxoplasma gondii: a parasite and its main host
Toxoplasmosis is caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. Cats are final hosts for him. Toxoplasmosis is particularly widespread among outdoor animals – up to 75 percent of them have antibodies, meaning they have already gone through toxoplasmosis.
However, the parasite does not pose a great threat to our feline companions.
Toxoplasmosis: symptoms and diagnosis in cats
Toxoplasmosis can cause sudden death in young cats. Adult cats rarely experience symptoms when they become infected with the parasite. In some velvet paws, toxoplasmosis shows up through diarrhea, increased temperature, inflammation of the eyes, or slight breathing difficulties. Whether symptoms or not: During an acute infection, all cats shed oocysts – an early stage of development of the parasite – in their feces for around three weeks. Cats that have gone through toxoplasmosis are then immune: Usually, no further oocysts are excreted in the feces. Chronic toxoplasmosis only develops in cats with a weakened immune system.
Treatment of toxoplasmosis
Toxoplasmosis infections in cats usually go unnoticed, so that no therapy is necessary. In exceptional cases, antibiotics are used in young animals or feline seniors. However, these only reach the parasites that are in the intestine. In addition, the vet can advise you on how to strengthen your cat’s immune system. This increases the likelihood that the infection will pass without leaving any damage.
Animal intermediate hosts: dogs and rodents
In principle, any mammal can serve as an intermediate host for the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. The intermediate hosts pass on the parasite without it becoming sexually mature in them. The clever strategy of the unicellular organism on the way to its favorite host, the cat, is fascinating: due to a toxoplasmosis infection, mice and rats lose their innate shyness of velvet paws. This way they get into the cat’s stomach more often and the pathogens into their ultimate host, who loves to eat mice. Whether toxoplasmosis is responsible for behavioral changes in humans is controversial. Given that the majority of people will go through such an infection in their lifetime, there is much room for speculation.
Before we turn to the danger of toxoplasmosis for humans, an important link in the chain of intermediate hosts should be mentioned: pigs, cows, or horses can also carry toxoplasmosis pathogens after they have eaten contaminated grass. The protozoa can remain in tissue cysts for years – including in the host’s muscles – in order to become active again in a new host.
How contagious is toxoplasmosis to humans?
Toxoplasmosis is a zoonosis, in other words: The disease can be transmitted from animals to humans. First of all:
The greatest risk of infection for humans is not our velvet paws, but the consumption of infected meat.
Because the pathogen lurks in the muscle meat of infected animals. Many people have already gone through a toxoplasmosis infection without noticing it: It is estimated that every second person in Germany carries antibodies against the pathogen. We can state for the time being: Yes, toxoplasmosis is contagious. However, your own cats are not the greatest danger.
Symptoms of a disease
Toxoplasmosis is symptom-free in 90 percent of those infected. Subsequently, these people are usually immune for life and do not excrete any further pathogens. Symptoms mainly occur in immunocompromised people – this can lead to meningitis, for example.
That is why toxoplasmosis is dangerous during pregnancy
If a Toxoplasma infection occurs during pregnancy, this can lead to malformations in the unborn child, which lead to an early abortion. Serious disabilities can also arise as a result. If an infection occurs later in pregnancy, the symptoms are often not immediately apparent. But toxoplasmosis can lead to blindness or brain damage in the child years after birth.
This is how pregnant women protect themselves from toxoplasmosis
Do you have a cat and are you pregnant? No reason to worry! With a few precautionary measures, you can prevent a possible toxoplasmosis risk. First of all, it is important to find out whether your cats can be carriers of toxoplasmosis at all. For example, if you have an older outdoor animal, he is probably already immune. For indoor-only cats that you don’t feed raw meat, the risk of infection is practically zero. Ask your gynecologist to have your blood tested for antibodies to toxoplasmosis.
If there are antibodies in the blood, you can breathe a sigh of relief: you have already gone through infection and are immune.
Based on the titre, the doctor can determine your risk and recognize an acute toxoplasmosis infection and initiate treatment immediately.
If you do not have antibodies, you should take various precautions when you are outdoors. If you have to remove cat poop yourself, wear gloves. It would be even better if a family member took over this task in the future. Protect yourself with gloves when gardening, because the oocysts can also lurk in the ground for a suitable intermediate host. Wash your hands after petting the cat. Do not eat raw meat: This also includes sausage or raw ham. Heat meat for at least 70 degrees for several minutes. The parasites die when they have to stay in the freezer at -20 degrees for several days. Wash vegetables and fruits well before consumption to rinse off any pathogens from the garden.