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Written by leading veterinarians to provide you with the information you need to care for your pets.

The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Cats, Cat Poop, and Toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis is a disease that frequently attracts media attention because it can infect people. In fact, the disease can be quite serious for pregnant women and potentially for immunosuppressed individuals as well. We know that cats can shed the organisms that cause toxoplasmosis in their feces under the right conditions. However, we also know that simple precautions, such as following routine hygienic procedures and avoiding the ingestion of uncooked meat, can be very effective in preventing the spread of toxoplasmosis.

Recently, E. Fuller Torrey and Robert H. Yolken published a report in Trends in Parasitology entitled Toxoplasma oocysts as a public health problem. The summary of the report reads:

“Waterborne outbreaks of Toxoplasma gondii have focused attention on the importance of oocysts shed in the feces of infected cats. Cat feces deposited annually into the environment in the United States total approximately 1.2 million metric tons. The annual oocyst burden measured in community surveys is 3 to 434 oocysts per square foot and is greater in areas where cats selectively defecate. Because a single oocyst can possibly cause infection, this oocyst burden represents a major potential public health problem. The proper disposal of cat litter, keeping cats indoors, reducing the feral cat population, and protecting the play areas of children might potentially reduce the oocyst burden.”

While I believe that many of the recommendations in this report are pertinent and I don’t wish to understate the importance of toxoplasmosis as a disease threat, this report also has opened the door for widespread media coverage that negatively affects the cat population in general by casting our cats in the role of scapegoats for widespread disease transmission. Too often, the fact that toxoplasmosis is a preventable disease is overlooked, glossed over, or buried deep in the content of these media articles.

I’ve talked before about ways to prevent infection with toxoplasmosis. I’ll refer you to the past post rather than reiterating the methods here. Suffice it to say that good hygiene is the cornerstone of preventing toxoplasmosis, as well as many other diseases.

I think it is worth pointing out also that, though the fecal spread of toxoplasmosis is a concern, toxoplasmosis is far from being the only disease that is spread through animal waste, nor are cats alone in being responsible for the spread of these diseases.

  • For example, cats, dogs, and wild animals (such as raccoons) can spread roundworms through fecal contamination. Roundworm infections can be especially dangerous for children, causing blindness, seizures, and more.
  • Leptospirosis is a disease that is typically spread through contamination with urine, with rodents and other wild animals being frequent carriers of the disease. Dogs can spread the disease as well. Leptospirosis can cause serious and life-threatening disease in people.
  • Giardiasis is another disease that can be spread to people through fecal contamination of food or water, though how important pet dogs and cats are to the transmission of this disease is questionable.

These are only a few examples of zoonotic diseases that can infect people; not only from cats but from other species as well. As with toxoplasmosis, good hygiene (and common sense) is important to prevent the spread of most of these diseases as well.

Dr. Lorie Huston

Image: niderlander / via Shutterstock

Comments  6

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  • Thank You
    07/22/2013 02:26pm

    This is a graet site ... but there doesn't seem to be any place I can leave such a comment so I will leave it here and hopefully the right people see it so they know how appreciated this site is and how the articles are informative and spot on. I am a recipient of other newsletters but The Daily Vet is the only one I read!!

  • 07/22/2013 02:28pm

    Rats .... I made a typo. (graet = great)

    Also liked this article greatly. Was informative to see other diseases that can be spread by other animals, too.

  • Kitty Scapegoats
    07/22/2013 06:03pm

    It is my understanding that people get toxo from gardening, too - even if a cat hasn't been eliminating in the garden. (Maybe it was a raccoon?)

    You are so correct that it seems cyclic that the media doesn't have a news headline and "bad mouths" the cats. The germ-a-phobia that seems to surround us is breathtaking and I, for one, am tired of the cats getting the short end of the stick.

    Growing up my family had indoor-outdoor cats. I played with them endlessly and never caught anything from them.

    Using a little common sense can solve so many problems.

  • 07/22/2013 06:04pm

    P.S. "Cat feces deposited annually into the environment in the United States total approximately 1.2 million metric tons"

    Wow! That's a lot of cat poop. Wonder how it compares to dog poop.

  • Germaphobia
    07/22/2013 08:30pm

    I agree with TheOldBroad, who notes how germaphobia seems to have run rampant these days. I also grew up with dozens of cats (our family was adopted by strays constantly; we neutered them and kept them all...) and I also had horses for many, many years. I spent many long days at horse shows, often hopping between two horses and frequently had to eat on horseback, waiting for my next class. In the evening, there was nearly always a cat in my bed. I practically never get sick and when I do, I get over whatever it is much faster than anyone else.

    Today, I spend most of my time with dogs. My sheltie is always with me, loves to give kisses and jumps on the bed to say goodnight. I keep him well groomed, wash my hands after cleanup and before cooking, and otherwise, do not worry.

    I do think however, when a woman is pregnant, her significant other should clean the litter box. Not necessarily to avoid disease, but just because...!!!

  • Thank you!
    07/24/2013 09:20am

    Hi Dr. Huston,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Toxoplasmosis and the fact that while it can be harmful need not be if we take some very simple steps to ensure hygiene. Going over to check out your other articles now. We are about to get our first foster cat and her soon to be born litter of kittens and want to make sure I keep the little family healthy.

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