Toxoplasmosis: “Crazy Cat Lady” Just Took On A Whole New Meaning

If your cat is the love of your life, you probably want to protect them and keep them healthy. All that purring and snuggling leads a lot of people to feel about cats the way they do potato chips --- they can’t have just one! But, like any pet, they’re susceptible to some diseases that can affect not only their precious lives, but the lives of the humans that love them as well. Many cats, especially those who are allowed to go outside, are at risk of carrying a parasite called Toxoplasma Gondii --- a parasite humans can also pick up while cleaning out the litter box of a recently infected cat. The shocking truth is that it can affect your mental health. And millions who have it aren’t even aware of it.

The Parasite that Causes Toxoplasmosis

T. Gondii is a very common parasite that can be contracted from eating raw meat from an infected animal. A human could contract it directly from raw or undercooked meat that has never been frozen, for example. Eating unwashed veggies in a garden where an infected cat has done their business are also carries some risks. Many cats who have access to the outdoors instinctively kill rodents, which are common carriers of T. Gondii. If your cat has the parasite, they probably picked it up from an infected rat or other wild prey. For about two weeks following their infection, you may be at risk of catching it from them.

Rodents who are infected are slower, lack a normal fear response and therefore are easier for a hunting cat to catch than an uninfected one. That fact is actually very important, as it impacts cat owners directly.

When a cat is exposed to the disease, they may sometimes have symptoms like fever, fatigue, and diarrhea. In most people, the parasite doesn’t even make them sick. You’re likely to never even realize you’ve been infected. In people with weakened immune systems, infection by T. Gondii can lead to the development of a condition called Toxoplasmosis. Those with an active infection can experience flu symptoms and even eye or lung damage. Acute Toxoplasmosis in humans has been considered most dangerous for pregnant women because it can cause developmental issues for the baby and sometimes even miscarriages. However, science has now linked long-term infection with some serious mental health concerns, too.

 T. Gondii in the Brain

Now, a few moments ago you read that being infected slows down the rat, making him an easy catch for your average tubby housecat. Science wondered about these symptoms for a very long time, but now we have some concrete answers and we know this happens in humans as well.

The stealthy parasite evades the immune system by attaching itself to and within the white blood cells that are normally responsible for fighting off infections. It can ride the cells right to the brain. The T. Gondii DNA also creates a neurotransmitter called GABA. Interestingly, GABA in the brain lowers anxiety and fear. Just like in rats, a lowered fear response begins to emerge in humans. But wait, there’s more!

Even in individuals without an immune disorder, it seems the parasite may cause slower reaction time in people, as well. The parasite increases the likelihood that the infected person will be in a car accident, just like it makes a rodent more likely to be killed by a predator. There are also studies linking the disease to schizophrenia and other mood disorders, due to an increase in the neurotransmitter, dopamine, that takes place in the brain following infection as well. Because high dopamine levels and schizophrenia have a close association, there is speculation that people infected with Toxoplasmosis could be up to 25% more at risk for the symptoms of schizophrenia. Further, this storm of neurotransmitter production can also increase the risk of suicide.

So, the “crazy cat lady” stereotype might have some basis in medicine. These changes to the brain are nothing to ignore, and we certainly need even more research to understand the long-term implications of T. Gondii on our mental health. After all, this is a very common infection that a huge portion of the world’s population carries around; about 60 million people in the U.S. alone.

Treatment and Prevention

Toxoplasmosis can be treated, but technically it cannot be cured. Antibiotics will interrupt the parasite at one stage of its lifecycle and will often halt symptoms in an acute Toxoplasmosis infection, but treatment isn’t a guarantee that you or your cat is completely clear of T. Gondii. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should panic, of course. There are plenty of preventative ways you can protect yourself and your cat from Toxoplasmosis.

1. Keep Your Cat Inside

Your feline is in the most danger of infection while exposed to small prey outside that may have the parasite. You can help everyone in your house stay safe by keeping your cat inside rather than have her be one who roams about in the unknown. Plus, this keeps your kitty safe from many other dangers and diseases that are common in the great outdoors.

2. Wash Your Hands

Scrub your hands with soap and water directly after cleaning out the litter box. Usually, a cat’s feces is only infectious to you a few weeks after the cat picked it up, but it’s best to stay as clean as possible. Cats only shed the eggs of the parasite in their feces for around 14 days after infection. The exception is if you have a cat with FIV or Feline Leukemia Virus. Cats with these conditions have an impaired immune system and, if infected, can potentially shed the eggs in their stool at any time.

3. Let Someone Else Do It

If you or someone in your family is pregnant or immunocompromised, it might be best for you or that person to avoid the litter box altogether. If someone else is willing to do that job, it can lower the risk of infection.

4. Don’t Feed Kitty Raw Food

Humans can get T. Gondii from raw food, as can cats. So keeping your cat away from anything raw or undercooked and sticking to their regular cat food can prevent the disease. Meat that has been frozen doesn’t pose the same risk, as freezing kills the parasite. Wash your veggies well, too.

Keep in mind that you can also have yourself or your cat tested for T. Gondii, so don’t be afraid to get checked out if you have concerns. In all likelihood, your cat is a special member of your family whom you want to be healthy and happy, so with a little extra care and a watchful eye you can protect your cat and your own health.

6/5/2017 9:00:00 PM
Wellness Editor
Written by Wellness Editor
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Wow. Another new threat requiring more education. I have 3 rescue kitties and a rescued pit bull girl. Can T. Gondi be transferred to dogs, as well?
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