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What is toxoplasmosis and how can you protect yourself and your family from it?

We’ve all heard that pregnant women should never clean the litter box. Why is this recommendation made? This blog will provide basic information on the disease and tips that will help prevent its spread to humans.

Toxoplasma gondii is a protozoal parasite that is a leading cause of foodborne illness in the U.S.. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 60 million people in the U.S. carry the protozoa, but are asymptomatic because their immune systems keep the parasite at bay. That means roughly 22.5% of the population has been infected at some point. However, Toxoplasma becomes a big problem when a woman becomes infected for the first time during pregnancy OR in anyone with a compromised immune system.

The Life cycle of Toxoplasma

Cats are Toxoplasma’s definitive host. Since cats are hunters by nature, they acquire toxoplasmosis by ingesting small animals that are infected. The parasite then sets up in the cat’s body and begins shedding eggs (called oocysts). The cat as Toxoplasma’s definitive host is the only animal in which oocysts are formed. After a cat is infected, it can pass these eggs in the feces for weeks. Humans and other animals get toxoplasmosis from eating these eggs. These eggs are small and light enough to become airborne with litter dust. Kittens can be infected before birth while still in the uterus. Therefore even indoor cats could be at risk for toxoplasmosis. In any animal other than a cat (including humans), the parasite enters the host’s body tissues and forms a cyst full of bradyzoites, a slow moving form of the parasite.

Preventing Toxoplasmosis

-The most common way toxoplasmosis is spread is by eating contaminated food – unwashed vegetables or fruits or under-cooked meat. You should always cook meat thoroughly and wash produce thoroughly. Always use clean knives and cutting boards. For example, use a different, clean cutting board for salad than for meat.

-Always wash your hands after cleaning the litter box. The litter box should be cleaned daily as it takes 1 to 5 days for the oocysts to become infective. If you are pregnant or may become pregnant, it is best to have someone else clean the litter box. Pregnant women should avoid ANYTHING that has come into contact with cat feces. This can include contaminated soil in the garden. If you must clean the litter box while pregnant, wear disposable latex gloves and a dust mask and wash your hands after completing the task.

-We recommend keeping your cat indoors to reduce the likelihood of your cat becoming affected. Do not get a new cat or kitten while pregnant.

Why is Toxoplasmosis a big deal in a pregnant woman?

The woman may not even have any symptoms if she becomes infected, but the parasite can be passed to the unborn child. Unfortunately, the unborn child’s eyes and nervous system may be severely affected causing severe consequences. Other potential consequences of infection during pregnancy can include miscarriage and still birth. Children infected before birth may not show signs until later in life and could include loss of vision, mental disorders, and seizures. If you have already been infected (prior to pregnancy) the risk of toxoplasmosis harming the unborn child is minimal. Your doctor can perform a series of tests to determine if you have been infected recently or in the past.

If you would like to learn more about toxoplasmosis, please call and ask us or check out the CDC’s website.

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