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Toxoplasmosis in cats

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Toxoplasmosis in pets is caused by infection with Toxoplasma, a microscopic, single-cell organism.  Virtually all warm-blooded animals, including people, can be infected with Toxoplasma, yet it rarely causes significant disease.

Toxoplasma organisms are found worldwide, and infection in cats is similarly widespread. Infection rates are higher in free-roaming cats and lower in cats that do little or no hunting and are fed primarily commercial cat foods.

Cats are usually infected by ingesting Toxoplasma organisms present in the tissues (meat) of another infected animal, usually a rodent.  The organisms multiply in the intestinal tract of the cat and are often contained there.  However, oocysts (ie, eggs) are shed in the feces for up to 3 weeks after infection.  The oocysts can become infective in as little as 24 hours and can survive in the environment for many months or even years.  Other animals can become infected by ingesting these oocysts, but disease usually results only if large numbers are ingested.

Toxoplasma organisms usually do not cause disease in infected cats.  However, if the cat's immune system is not working properly, the organisms may flourish, and a variety of different signs can develop, including eye disease, respiratory problems, diarrhea, liver disease, and neurologic signs.

Toxoplasmosis is difficult to diagnose in cats because the signs can be so variable.  Blood tests for the presence of antibodies to the Toxoplasma organism can indicate whether a cat has been exposed to the organism, although exposure rarely results in infection.  When toxoplasmosis is suspected, it is usually treated with an appropriate antibiotic.

About one-third of adult human beings have been exposed to Toxoplasma, but most have no signs of disease, or possibly just show mild and transient flu-like signs.  However, the parasite remains in the body in an inactive state, and it can become activated if a person becomes immunosuppressed.  If a pregnant woman becomes infected with Toxoplasma during her pregnancy, the infection can be transmitted to the fetus and cause severe damage.

People are most commonly infected by eating contaminated food, such as infected meat that has not been adequately cooked, or raw meat.  Ingestion of oocysts from infected cats through contact with their feces is a less common source of human infection.  Regardless, the risk of human infection should be minimized by following these guidelines:

  • Clean and empty cat litterboxes daily.  Dispose of litter carefully, and disinfect the boxes with boiling water.
  • Pregnant women and immunosuppressed individuals should not handle litterboxes.  If no one else can do so, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water afterward.
  • Feed cats only commercial cat foods, not raw or undercooked meats.  Keep pet cats indoors and discourage them from hunting.
  • Cover outdoor sandboxes to prevent cats from using them as a litterbox.
  • Wear gloves when gardening and during any contact with soil or sand because it might be contaminated with cat feces that contain Toxoplasma.  Wash hands thoroughly afterward.

Q&A

What causes toxoplasmosis?

Toxoplasmosis is caused by infection with Toxoplasma, a microscopic, single-cell organism.  Infection occurs largely in cats, especially those that are free-roaming hunters.


What kind of illness does this infection cause?

Toxoplasma organisms usually do not cause disease in healthy cats.  However, kittens or those with a weakened immune system can experience a variety of respiratory, gastrointestinal, neurologic, or other medical problems.


Can people become infected from toxoplasmosis?

People are most commonly infected by eating infected meat that has not been adequately cooked, but they can also become infected by handling feces from infected cats.  Pregnant women are especially at risk because wandering Toxoplasma parasites can potentially damage the unborn fetus.


How can I tell if my cat is infected with toxoplasmosis?

Toxoplasmosis is difficult to diagnose in cats because the signs can be so variable.  Blood tests can indicate whether a cat has ever been exposed to the organism, although past exposure does not necessarily mean that there is current infection.  

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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