Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a microscopic parasite called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii). Many warm-blooded animals, including livestock, birds, humans, and most pets, can become infected. Infection with the parasite is relatively common (over 60 million people in the U.S. carry the parasite), although the actual disease is rare. In humans, toxoplasmosis can cause severe illness in infants infected before birth or in people with a weakened immune system.
There are three ways that people become infected with T. gondii:
- Eating food, drinking water, or accidentally swallowing soil contaminated with infected cat feces. For example, if you’re out gardening and do not wash your hands before touching your mouth.
- Eating raw or undercooked meat infected with Toxoplasma, usually pork, lamb, or deer.
- Passing it directly from a pregnant woman to her unborn child when the mother becomes infected during pregnancy.
Cats usually become infected with T. gondii from eating infected mice, birds, or other small animals. They can also become infected by eating uncooked meat scraps. The oocysts (the thick-walled structures in which the parasite develops), are shed in the feces, but do not become infectious for one-to-five days.
Since toxoplasmosis can have serious consequences for infants, pregnant women are often concerned about the risk of owning a cat during pregnancy. You should talk with your physician and let them know about the types of pets you have at home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides the following tips to prevent infection with Toxoplasma:
- Avoid cleaning the litter box, if possible. If you must do this task, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands with soap and water afterwards.
- Still, make sure that the litter box is cleaned on a daily basis. Remember, the parasite does not become infectious until one-to-five days after it is shed in the cat’s feces.
- Feed your cat a commercial dry or canned food, not raw or undercooked meats.
- Do not eat raw or undercooked meat. Meat should be cooked until the internal temperature is 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Keep cats indoors.
- Keep outdoor sandboxes covered.
- Wear gloves when gardening and during contact with soil or sand, and wash your hands with soap and water after gardening.