Toxoplasmosis, Cats, and Litter Boxes

The risk of contracting toxoplasmosis is misunderstood and sometimes overblown. I’m not saying that it isn’t a serious concern for women who are exposed for the first time during pregnancy, but it’s helpful to look at the facts:

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 40 million men, women, and children in the U.S. carry the Toxoplasma parasite. Of those who are infected, very few have symptoms because a healthy person’s immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness.
  • In the UK, the overall rate of toxoplasma infection is between 23 and 33 percent, according to data published by the NIH. In the United Kingdom approximately 0.5 percent to one percent of the population acquires the infection each year, so that about 40 percent of people aged 50 or over have been infected.

If you are planning to become pregnant, you can be tested to learn whether or not you have already been infected with Toxoplasma. If the test is positive it means you have already been infected sometime in your life. According to the CDC, there usually is little need to worry about passing the infection to your baby if you’ve already been infected. If the test is negative, you most definitely need to take precautions.

Here are some points to remember about cats, their feces, and litter boxes:

  • The problem comes from the oocyst, which is shed in the cat feces. A cat will ONLY SHED oocysts for ten to 14 days after his/her FIRST infection with toxoplasmosa. Even more important– and often overlooked–is the fact that oocysts require 24-48 hours to sporulate, to grow into a form which is dangerous to people. This means if you clean your litter box at least twice a day, you have dramatically reduced the danger of infection from cat feces. Bear in mind that are still other sources of toxoplasmosis – gardening, unsanitary handling of meat, (rarely) blood transfusions, insects, and earthworms.
  • In order to get infected from your cats’ feces, the following would all have to be true: You were never previously infected with toxoplasmosis AND your cat would have had to have been exposed to her very first infection and shed the oocysts in her feces AND that shedding of oocysts would have had to occur within a specific ten to 14 day time frame AND you would have had to not clean the litter box for 24-48 hours AND you would have had to ingest some of the infected feces.

I don’t take the dangers of this condition lightly. It can be a very serious concern for certain people. But admonitions from some medical doctors to “get rid of your cat” without explaining the nature of the risk and the steps that can be taken to avoid or mitigate it do not tell the whole story.

TAKEAWAYS: Paying attention to hygiene and getting a handle on your vulnerability to toxoplasmosis makes good sense. If you’re in a high-risk population, get yourself tested to determine whether you’ve already been exposed. Wash your hands and clean under your fingernails thoroughly after handling raw meat. or cleaning the litter box–this alone goes a long way to alleviating the risks of contracting toxoplasmosis. Wear rubber gloves when gardening and when cleaning the litter box. And clean the litter box at least twice a day.





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