Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a one-cell parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. This parasite is found throughout the world. In a healthy person, the parasite rarely causes problems because the immune system keeps the parasite from causing damage. However, pregnant women and those with weak immune systems (infants, HIV/AIDS, certain types of chemotherapy, organ transplant patients) should be cautious of the parasite.
The Toxoplasma gondii parasite is acquired through the eating of contaminated cat feces. For example, by touching your mouth after cleaning a cat's litter box or gardening where a cat may be using the soil as a litter box. Toxoplasmosis is also acquired from eating raw or under cooked meat, especially pork, lamb or venison. This also includes the contamination of cutting boards, knives and your hands from handling under cooked meat. Drinking water can also be contaminated with Toxoplasma.
The prevention of toxoplasmosis involves basic sanitation and food safety. When handling soil outdoors, wear gloves. Wash your hands with soap and water. When handling raw meat, wash cutting boards, sinks, knives, etc., to avoid cross contamination of other foods and again, wash your hands. Cook all meat thoroughly to the recommended internal temperatures.
Yes, you can keep your cat if you are pregnant or have a weakened immune system. Just take some steps to avoid being exposed to Toxoplasma. Keep your cat indoors and don't feed him/her raw meat or allow the cat to eat prey. Have someone who is healthy or not pregnant change the cat box DAILY. If you have to change the box yourself, wear gloves. Daily cleaning is important because the parasite found in cat feces needs one or more days to be infectious to people. Also remember to WASH YOUR HANDS!
If a cat is infected with Toxoplasma, it usually sheds the parasite for only a few weeks after being infected. Another good reason to keep your cat in the house. Tests for Toxoplasma are available for both cats and humans. Speak to your health care provider if you are concerned. Drugs are also available to treat toxoplasmosis, if that becomes necessary.
Acknowledgement: by Dr. Barbara Espe, Heart River Animal Hospital, PC, Located in Bismarck, ND, Dr. Espe specializes in small animal, avian and exotic medicine.