How Do Cats Get Toxoplasmosis?

Toxoplasmosis is an infection that can persist for long periods of time – or possibly a lifetime – in both animals (specifically, cats) and humans. 

In short, cats can contract the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis by consuming infected birds/rodents OR anything contaminated by another cat that is shedding the parasite through its feces (for example, the soil in a garden that has been used by a cat who has toxoplasmosis). 

Because of the way it travels, it is more common in cats who are allowed outside…however, due to how easily spread it is, your indoor cat could be at risk too. 

And that’s not all…

Toxoplasmosis also affects humans, too. 

So, let’s get to know more about this…

What is Toxoplasmosis?

Let’s first talk about toxoplasmosis: what it is, how it spreads and what to do if you or your cat contracts the infection. 

This infection is caused by a parasite called “Toxoplasma gondii“. 

An interesting fact to know about toxoplasmosis and the human body is that if a person who contracts this infection has a healthy immune system, that person might have few to no symptoms because our system would stop the parasite from causing illness. 

So, hypothetically, you could have toxoplasmosis and not even know it. This is why in a lot of places, when a woman announces to her family doctor that they are expecting a child, (and the doctor is aware of cats in the home), they will order a test to see if you have contracted it, as it can impact your pregnancy – but more on that later!

Watch the video below for an informative and quirky explanation of toxoplasmosis. 

 

How Toxoplasmosis Travels

How do you know if your cat has toxoplasmosis?

Well, you have to know how cats get the parasite that can cause this infection. You have to know how this parasite travels in order to know if you and/or your pets are at risk. 

A quick breakdown of how toxoplasmosis is transferred to you or your cat:

  • under-cooked meat 
  • contaminated water
  • cat feces or soil contaminated with cat feces
  • unwashed vegetables or fruit 
  • your cat hunting a carrier of toxoplasmosis (rodents, birds, mice)

We’ll get more into specific ways of contracting this parasitic infection below!
You or your pet may even have already had toxoplasmosis in your lifetime…in fact – it’s very likely that you have. 

How Your Cat Gets Toxoplasmosis

Let’s say your cat is friends with your neighbor’s cat.
They chase each other, go prowling around the neighborhood terrorizing the local dogs, chasing mice in the garden – general cat things.

Well, if your neighbor’s cat has toxoplasmosis and they are used to playing in (and soiling) the same garden(s) – it’s very possible your cat could contract the infection that way. But, this can go a bunch of different ways, too…

Let’s say your cat doesn’t contract toxoplasmosis directly from the other cat. But – let’s say there is a mouse in that same garden that is a toxoplasma carrier, and it’s hunted by a bird. The bird would then have contacted toxoplasmosis from the mouse.

Then, let’s pretend that this bird was to be pregnant at the time of infection…it’s likely that her offspring could then be born as carriers of the toxoplasmosis infection. 

Let’s go even further, and say that one of those baby birds is hunted by your sneaky outdoor cat. And the cycle starts over again, with your cat then being infected with the parasite from the bird. 

See what I mean?
This is a cycle that is likely to repeat itself in a lot of different scenarios. 

two cats kissing toxoplasmosis

It’s tricky because if you have a cat that does go outdoors, it’s almost inevitable that they will come into contact with another animal who currently has or has previously had this parasite.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you should keep your cat only indoors – I am just explaining really how common toxoplasmosis is amongst cats – even indoor ones! (But more on that later!)

Below is a diagram from the Cornell Feline Health Center that explains the life cycle of toxoplasmosis. Cats are what is considered a “definitive host” because they can shed the infection. 

toxoplasmosis life cycle
Image Sourced from Cornell Feline Health Center

 

To generalize it a bit more, let’s talk about some rough statistics…according to this article, as much as 60% of cats will at some point in their lives contract this parasitic infection.

Of course, this highly depends on your cat’s lifestyle, as outdoor cats who often hunt for their food (or for fun) are more likely to be infected. 

So, now that we know roughly how common this infection is (and I’ve likely convinced and terrified you into thinking your cat will have the parasite or maybe already has), let’s talk about how you know if your cat has it.

Well, let’s talk about symptoms.

If your cat is experiencing these symptoms, it is likely a sign of toxoplasmosis. 

❌weight loss or loss of appetite
❌lethargy or lack of energy
❌ sensitivity to light
❌ vomiting
❌ diarrhea
❌ watering eyes
❌ jaundice
❌ breathing problems
❌ flu-like symptoms 

While toxoplasmosis is possible in birds and warm-blooded animals (humans included), cats are the only animals that can have infected feces. 

Something that’s very important to note…

Once a cat has the parasite, it can usually be through the cat’s feces within about 14 days. 

This means that yes, it’s very likely your cat will at some point have the toxoplasmosis infection.

However, it is only active in their systems for about 14 days. After this time, your cat will have the toxoplasma antibodies, meaning they will not be at risk anymore. 

With toxoplasmosis, it’s really about the timing of infection, not so much about contracting the infection itself…because this is very likely to happen at some point in the lifetime of both animals and humans.

It’s only if the parasite has been contracted during pregnancy (in both humans and animals) that it can pose serious risks. 

There are a lot of myths, some confusion and a bit of panic around toxoplasmosis…this video does a great job of explaining the real facts about toxoplasmosis. 

And, if you’re interested in reading more about toxoplasmosis in a simple guide, read this article!

How Do People Get Toxoplasmosis? 

People can become infected in a lot of different ways, and some (or most) people don’t even show any symptoms. 

However, contrary to popular belief, toxoplasmosis is not spread directly from person to person. So, if you’re having your weekly brunch with a friend who has toxoplasmosis (whether they know it or not) it’s not like they could then pass that to you. The only way toxoplasmosis can be spread from person to person is when a pregnant mother infects her unborn child in the womb.

Even so…toxoplasmosis is actually fairly common in humans.

To give you an idea of how common toxoplasmosis is in people…

In the same article, we talked about above, it’s explained there are approximately 500 million people worldwide who have been infected with toxoplasmosis at some point in their lives.

Now, don’t let this convince you that you should cut all ties with cats because truthfully even non-pet-owners have a chance of coming into contact with toxoplasmosis! 

Aside from contracting this infection from a cat, people can become infected in some of the following ways:

  • eating food or drinking water that has been contaminated with cat feces infected soil.
  • eating raw or undercooked meat from animals (specifically pigs, lamb or wild game) that have the toxoplasma parasite.
  • coming into contact with cat feces that have the Toxoplasma gondii parasite (for example, when cleaning your cat’s litter box
  • directly from a pregnant woman (to her unborn child) when the mother becomes infected with the parasite just before or during her pregnancy.

cat laying in grass toxoplasmosis

 

How to Treat Toxoplasmosis

A simple blood test will be able to show the existence of toxoplasma.
In fact, a blood test will be able to explain if you have had it in the past or if the infection is current.

?Treating Toxoplasmosis in Humans 

Most of the time, our immune systems fight off toxoplasmosis and we don’t need medicine or treatment. Sometimes, because the symptoms can mimic that of a cold or flu, some people may not even know they’ve ever had toxoplasmosis. 

People who do require treatment (for example, a person whose immune system is very low) can be treated by pyrimethamine, sulfadiazine and folinic acid. (For those who don’t speak medical – your doctor can simply prescribe you some medicine to help your body rid itself of the parasite). 

For pregnant women, newborns and infants – they can be treated, but the parasite isn’t eliminated completely. It can remain in the tissue cells (in a less active phase of its life). This is why it’s very important to detect toxoplasmosis in these cases. 

?Treating Toxoplasmosis in Cats

The treatment for toxoplasmosis is antibiotics. Cats who are severely ill may be hospitalized and treated with fluid therapy and other appropriate supportive care. It is critical that medications be completed, even though giving a cat a pill can be difficult.

Watch this video to learn how to effectively give medicine (in pill form) to your cats. 

However…

To treat toxoplasmosis, you have to know your cat has it. And that’s not as simple as it might seem when the symptoms of toxoplasmosis are mirrored in other diseases or infections as well. 

Upon realizing your cat has the symptoms of toxoplasmosis, your vet may recommend a few different tests to determine what the real issue is – due to the symptoms being so widely known in other health issues. 

Your vet could do one or more of the following, to help discover if your cat has toxoplasmosis:

  • perform chemistry tests to study the kidney, liver and pancreatic functions in your cat 
  • antibody tests to confirm or deny if the parasite is present in your cat’s system (this will be a common and simple test) 
  • a complete blood count to rule out any blood-related conditions that could be causing similar symptoms 
  • if your cat is older, there could be a thyroid test done to rule out the possibility of a high thyroid hormone count 
  • chest x-rays to check on the heart and lungs 
  • an eye exam, as toxoplasmosis is said to affect vision in severe cases 

The treatment in cats is practically the same as in humans – antibiotics. 

Cats who are severely ill might need to be kept at the vet’s office and treated with fluids or kept under watch. It’s critical that medications are done until completion, even if giving a cat a pill is difficult. 

cat hunting in garden

 

Toxoplasmosis and Pregnancy In Cats

When I got pregnant, (because we have two indoor/outdoor cats running around), I asked my doctor if they could run a toxoplasmosis screening with the hCG blood test my work required for me to claim pregnancy benefits.

This was simple and ended up coming back negative. Now, what does a negative mean?

Well, in my case, a negative meant that I didn’t currently have toxoplasmosis – because I had already contracted it in the past.

This didn’t come as a shock to me because I have been around farm animals all my life and have been a cat owner for over a decade. 

There is a lot of fear and confusion around toxoplasmosis and pregnancy – so let’s get to the facts. 

The first thing you have to note (which I’ve explained before, but it’s important so it needs to be said again) is that toxoplasmosis is dangerous if contracted during pregnancy. 

It’s really a timing thing.

If you’ve had toxoplasmosis in the past, it’s very rare that it would affect your current pregnancy. 

  1. Toxoplasmosis is only a risk to an unborn baby if it’s caught for the first time during pregnancy or within a few weeks of you getting pregnant.
  2. If an unborn baby contracts toxoplasmosis from their mother, they are said to have “congenital toxoplasmosis”.
  3. The damage resulting from the infection will depend on when in pregnancy you contracted the infection. Toxoplasmosis can cause miscarriage, stillbirth or damage to the baby’s brain or other organs, more specifically, the eyes. 
  4. Contrary to popular belief, if you do contract toxoplasmosis for the first time during your pregnancy, it doesn’t mean your child will certainly be infected. On average, 4 in 10 babies will be passed the infection from the mother. This is relatively low odds. 

However… 

Most babies who are born with toxoplasmosis have no obvious damage at birth but can develop symptoms (usually eye damage) during childhood or in some cases, adulthood. 

A blood test to check for toxoplasmosis can be done at any stage in your pregnancy, it’s not risky, and can show you a possible infection 2-3 weeks after any exposure could have happened.

If your tests come back negative – don’t worry. If they come back positive for toxoplasmosis, your doctor will make a suggestion about any further action that might be needed. 

cat laying in grass toxoplasmosis cat veteran (2)

 

Now that we’ve talked about how to test for toxoplasmosis, let’s talk about preventative steps you can take to avoid your exposure while pregnant. 

Before we jump into the prevention tips, let’s make one thing clear…

Getting pregnant does not mean you need to rid your house of cats and/or avoid them completely. Really, you likely have more of a chance of contracting the parasite from unwashed produce, gardening or raw meat than you do from your own cat. 

Let me explain…

Your cat will shed the parasite through their feces for about 2 weeks…meanwhile, you could be contaminated by the parasite in a variety of different ways all throughout your nine months of pregnancy.

How to prevent your risk of contracting toxoplasmosis when you are pregnant:

  1. Eat only well-cooked meat (with is safest during pregnancy anyway).
  2. Drink safe (noncontaminated) water. To be on the safe side, you can always consider purchasing a water purifier for your tap!
  3. Wash your hands well after any contact with soil (like gardening), sandboxes or raw meat. 
  4. Wash fruits and vegetables well (to reduce soil contamination). 
  5. Consider keeping your cat indoors if possible, to lessen the chances of toxoplasmosis contact. 
  6. Monitor what your cat eats (as best as you can) sticking to commercial cat food or well-cooked meat if she needs a treat. 
  7. Have someone else clean the cat’s litter box, if possible. If not, wear gloves and wash your hands well after. 
  8. Take your cat to a veterinarian when you find out you’re pregnant to check for toxoplasmosis (and regularly during your pregnancy) so if toxoplasmosis is found, you know right away. 

orange cat outside in nature toxoplasmosis cat veteran

Related Questions

Do house cats have toxoplasmosis? While outdoor cats are more susceptible to toxoplasmosis because of their exposure to other animals and possibly contaminated soil – it is possible for your indoor cat to contract the infection as well. 

Can humans get toxoplasmosis from cats? Yes, it’s possible for you to get the infection from a cat because cats are the only animal carriers who secrete the infection through their feces. 

Can toxoplasmosis be treated? Toxoplasmosis can be treated, but the most healthy body will naturally recover without any treatment needed. In fact, a lot of humans who contract toxoplasmosis don’t even know they have it because the symptoms can be like that of a common cold or flu. 

Can I test my cat for toxoplasmosis? A simple test done by your vet can alert you to toxoplasmosis antibodies or infection in your cat. 

Is toxoplasmosis fatal in cats? Toxoplasmosis itself doesn’t prove to be fatal – but the complications that stem from the symptoms of toxoplasmosis can be fatal in certain scenarios. For instance, if a cat has toxoplasmosis and this infection causes serious symptoms like pneumonia, blindness or neurological symptoms…those things could prove fatal to your cat.

Can you get toxoplasmosis from a cat scratch? It’s very, very unlikely to get toxoplasmosis from a cat scratch or bite because toxoplasmosis is transmitted through feces, not through saliva or fur. 

How common is toxoplasmosis? Toxoplasmosis is more common than one might think, with anywhere from 20-60% of cats and an estimated 500 million people in the world having had the infection at some point in their lives. 

Does toxoplasmosis go away? Symptoms of toxoplasmosis (if you even notice any) are gone within about a week. However, the traces of toxoplasmosis (antibodies) stay in your system. This is how a doctor can tell if you have had toxoplasmosis in the past or if your infection is current. 

An exception to this is in the case of congenital toxoplasmosis (where an unborn baby contracts toxoplasmosis from the mother who is infected during your pregnancy)…whatever effects toxoplasmosis caused on the unborn child would be lifelong.

How long does toxoplasmosis stay in your body? In cats, toxoplasmosis is active for 2 weeks. In humans, you would experience symptoms for about 7 days, which is why a lot of people often confuse toxoplasmosis with the simple flu or cold. 

 

Sources:

Toxoplasmosis Parasites – (CDC)
Cat Diseases A-Z, Toxoplasmosis – (Pet Health Network)
Pregnancy Complications & Toxoplasmosis in Pregnancy – (Tommys)
Risks of Toxoplasmosis and Pregnancy – (NHS)
Feline Health Topics – Toxoplasmosis in Cats – (Cornell Feline Health Center)
Toxoplasmosis in Cats – (Pets/WebMD)
Infectious Parasites – Toxoplasmosis – (PetMD)
Toxoplasmosis Explanation PDF – (CDC) 
Toxoplasmosis Information – (WormsandGerms Blog)

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