What is toxoplasmosis in cats?
Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii). It is a common parasitic disease that can affect most warm-blooded animals, including humans. The parasite itself is too small to be seen with the naked eye, and can live inside warm-blooded animals, in soil, undercooked or raw meat, water and other locations.
What causes toxoplasmosis in cats?
Toxoplasmosis in cats occurs as a result of a toxoplasma gondii infection. Cats are the primary host of T.gondii, meaning that they are the only animal in which the parasite completes its life cycle. Cats can get a toxoplasma infection by eating infected prey or raw meat, digging/rooting in infected soil or ingesting infected cat faeces. Infected cats then excrete the parasite’s eggs (gondii oocysts) in their faeces by the millions. Oocysts may survive in the environment for well over a year.
Most cats infected with T.gondii show no signs of disease. Occasionally, however, an acute clinical disease called toxoplasmosis occurs. This happens most often in cats with weakened immune systems, whose bodies cannot stop the spread of the parasite. The disease is therefore more likely to occur in cats with suppressed or weakened immune systems, including young kittens and cats with illnesses such as feline leukemia virus (FeLV) or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV).
Toxoplasmosis in cats – symptoms
The symptoms of toxoplasmosis in cats are variable, from quite vague signs of illness to more severe neurological signs. Common symptoms include:
- Weight loss
- Respiratory problems (shortness of breath)
- Uncoordinated ‘drunken’ gait
- Muscle tremors and weakness
- Partial or complete paralysis
- Vomiting and diarrhoea
- Abdominal Pain and loss of appetite
- Eye abnormalities – inflammation of the retinas, corneas and middle of the eye (uveitis)
- Jaundice (yellow tinge to the gums and whites of the eyes)
How to treat toxoplasmosis in cats
Cat owners who are concerned about domestic cats being at risk of, or suffering from toxoplasmosis can book a free consultation with one of our vets at your local Animal Trust clinic.
If the disease is suspected, the presence of the infection can be confirmed via a blood test to check for 2 types of antibodies against T.gondii.
Treatment will be required if your cat has a current (active) infection. This usually involves a course of a specific antibiotic, given from diagnosis until several days after clinical signs have resolved. These may be given in combination with corticosteroids if there is significant inflammation of the eyes or central nervous system.
In cases of severe disease, your cat may need to be hospitalized for emergency clinical disease treatment. Fluids and medication will need to be given intravenously in pet cats who have become dehydrated. At Animal Trust, our upfront and fixed pricing structure means you can rest assured there will be no surprise costs involved in your pet’s treatment.
How to prevent toxoplasmosis in cats
Prevention of toxoplasmosis infection is essential, due to the potential for both severe disease in cats and the possibility of spread to humans and other animals.
The best way to prevent infection from this parasite, for you and your cat, is through prevention and hygiene. It is unlikely that you would be exposed to the parasite by stroking or touching an infected cat, or through cat bites or scratches. Indoor cats that do not hunt prey or consume raw or undercooked meat are unlikely to be infected with T. gondii.
Tips for preventing toxoplasmosis infection in cats
- Cats should preferably be fed commercially prepared, cooked foods, as thorough cooking inactivates any T.gondii cysts in meat. Eating raw meat or infected meat (that hasn’t been thoroughly cooked) is a hazard
- Where possible, prevent your cat from eating intermediate hosts, such as rodents and other animals
- Cats should not be allowed into livestock and food storage areas on farms.
- Outdoor sand pits should be covered when not in use to prevent pets using them as cat litter trays
- Wearing gloves whilst gardening and washing hands after playing outside (particularly with children) will prevent human infections from soil
- Wear gloves while changing your cat’s litter tray and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards
- Immunocompromised people or pregnant women should not handle cat litter. If it is unavoidable, make sure that all precautions are taken to avoid contact through the respiratory tract – for example, you may choose to wear gloves or a face mask
- Keep the litter tray clean on a daily basis. The longer the infected cat faeces remain in the litter box, the more likely the possibility that the eggs of the parasite will become viable and infectious.
Is toxoplasmosis in cats fatal?
The prognosis for cats diagnosed with toxoplasmosis depends upon which organs or systems are affected, the time between infection and treatment and whether the cat is immunocompromised.
If the cat has a subclinical infection, the prognosis is excellent. In fact, many cats have been infected and recovered without the owner even being aware of a gondii infection at all.
If the cat has symptoms that respond well to initial treatment, then the prognosis is usually favourable.
In general, cats with central nervous system (brain and spinal) signs and eye symptoms respond to therapy more slowly, but they still have a fairly good chance of survival if their clinical signs improve within 2-3 days of starting therapy.
Unfortunately, the prognosis for cats with severe toxoplasmosis affecting the liver or lungs is usually poor and these patients may not survive, even with appropriate treatment.
Toxoplasmosis symptoms in humans
The symptoms of toxoplasmosis in humans are typically very similar to flu symptoms. These can include:
- Aching muscles
- High temperature
- Sore throat
- Swollen glands
Most people do not even realise they have toxoplasmosis, but the symptoms usually get better on their own within 6 weeks as the human body’s immune system begins to attack the infection. It’s also important to note that once an individual has caught toxoplasmosis they cannot catch it again. However, if a person has a weakened immune system, toxoplasmosis can lead to serious issues. It’s particularly dangerous for pregnant women.
Toxoplasmosis in pregnant women
Pregnant women are more at risk than others if they are infected toxoplasmosis. Infection, which can occur before and during pregnancy, can cause health issues for the child when born including diseases of the eyes, nervous system and other health complications. The pregnant woman herself can be asymptomatic, but the outcome for the newborn can be significant. However, in extreme cases toxoplasmosis can cause miscarriage.
How to treat and prevent Toxoplasmosis in humans
If you fall under the category of having a weakened immune system you be advised to seek medical advice from your local GP. At your appointment, the GP may conduct tests and prescribe medication in order to treat the infection if deemed necessary.
If you are pregnant and you do test positive for toxoplasmosis, your GP may refer you for additional tests to determine if the unborn baby has been infected.
In order to avoid infection and prevent contracting toxoplasmosis, we advise people to take the following steps, (which are also applicable to preventing the spread of infection in cats):
- When handling a cat’s litter box, potentially infected soil or any cat faeces, ensure you wear gloves and wash your hands immediately after emptying the litter tray
- When gardening, ensure you are wearing gloves in case any soil has been in contact with cat faeces
- Wash your hands and kitchen utensils before preparing food and consuming food
- When preparing food, ensure fruit and vegetables are thoroughly washed to remove any soil particles
- Make sure food preparation surfaces are thoroughly cleaned
If you’re worried about your cat’s health or would like a health check, get in touch with your local Animal Trust surgery. We offer affordable, accessible pet health care. We also have a Virtual Vet Consultation Service, in case you need some initial advice or have questions.