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How to Have a Happy, Healthy Relationship with Your Cat

The Most Misunderstood Disease

by Fern Crist, DVM

Barcroft Cat Clinic

Kitten season is here! Tiny round eyes nested in an adorable fuzzy face, stare into your soul; you hear the little "Take me home" mew. How can you resist? Next thing you know, you're trying to sleep with a buzz saw sounding off next to your ear. All your (intact) breakables are in drawers or behind glass, and you can't find your floor under all the cat toys. Ah, the joys of cat ownership.

These things are a very small price to pay for the real happiness of having a great relationship with a great cat. Cat ownership is both a joy and a proven health benefit for most people, and as such is worth a little effort here and there. Toxoplasmosis is another reason you should put out a little effort.

Toxoplasmosis is probably the most misunderstood disease that a cat can give to a person. It's the one you always hear about that should keep pregnant women away from the litter box. Sometimes pregnant women are even told to give up their cats!! This is really not necessary, however, since disease transmission can be avoided in the vast majority of cases through a few very simple measures.

The disease is caused by a parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, which is commonly found in raw meats, including beef, pork and significantly, mouse. (That's an important way cats can get it.) In actuality, most people who contract the disease get it not from the litter box, but from eating raw or undercooked meats, which may contain the dormant adult organism, or from gardening in an area where cats may be defecating in the soil, since cat feces may contain the parasite egg.

The egg of the parasite is not infective until it has been out of the cat and in the presence of oxygen for 1 to 3 days. Since it requires at least a day for the egg to infective, it follows that cleaning solid waste out of the litter box twice a day should keep you from getting it from your cat. This is called "the Litter box Rule." To optimize safety, pregnant women should avoid handling the litter box at all; but if they must, wear gloves and wash hands afterward. this is "The Pregnant Lady Litter box Rule."

Here are some other rules to follow to protect you and your cat from Toxoplasmosis.

  • Neither you nor your cat should eat undercooked or raw meats.
  • Never drink water obtained from streams, rivers, and the like without boiling it first.
  • Wear gloves when gardening or working with soil, and wash your hands afterward.
  • Clean all kitchen surfaces thoroughly before preparing food on them (in case the cat sat there... and you know they do.)
  • And remember: indoor-only cats can't win the mouse lottery!.
Cats and kitchen counters do not mix!!

Most healthy people with good immune systems won't get sick from Toxoplasma even if they get it. In some, there will be a transient flu-like syndrome. If a woman contracts the disease while pregnant, serious problems with the pregnancy can result. Anyone with a crippled immune system (such as AIDS victims, cancer patients on chemotherapy, the very old, the very young, or the very ill) contracting Toxoplasmosis can become seriously ill and even die from it.

What makes this disease more important than some others is that once the parasite is in you, you've got it forever. It's just resting, and it may never do anything at all. BUT, if later in life you become immuno-compromised, it can reawaken. Even if you are as healthy as horse right now, you should still avoid this organism because of what it can do to you later. Thus, not only pregnant women, but anyone who has a cat should observe the Litter box Rules, cook meat properly, wash their hands after gardening - easy, simple measures that will protect you almost all cases.

Click here for hot weather health tips for your pet.

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Page Updated: Monday March 07, 2011