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