Cat Health: What Is Toxoplasmosis?

Lisa Selvaggio
by Lisa Selvaggio
fast facts

This problem isn’t contained to the litter box. Toxoplasmosis can affect cats and humans – here’s how to avoid infection.

As a cat owner, you’ve likely already heard of Toxoplasmosis, and you also may have heard that pregnant women should avoid cleaning litter boxes because of the risk of Toxoplasmosis. But what exactly is it, and how worried should you be? Learn more below so you can be sure you’re taking the proper steps to avoid infection.

A Parasitic Infection

The Toxoplasma gondii parasite is what causes the infection referred to as Toxoplasmosis. This parasitic disease is actually one of the most common, as it affects almost all warm-blooded creatures, including humans, even though felines are the parasite’s primary host. The good news is that it rarely results in significant disease in any species, including cats.

Cats are the only animals from which Toxoplasma gondii can be passed through feces into the environment, so it can be found in soil or in your cat’s litter box, as a couple of examples. However, humans can also be infected by coming into contact with the parasite in raw meat or unwashed produce.

Related: The Most Common Litter Box Mistakes You’re Making

How Does Infection in Cats Occur?

If a cat kills and consumes a wild animal (or eats raw meat) that carries the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, the cat will become infected, though she could also become infected by coming into contact with another infected feline’s feces.

After the parasite is ingested, it will multiply within the cat’s intestines until the immature eggs are shed in the animal’s feces. The eggs can be shed for as long as two weeks, and they can survive in an environment for over a year.

What Are the Symptoms?

The majority of cats that become infected with the Toxoplasma gondii parasite won’t exhibit any signs of infection. Toxoplasmosis, which is the clinical disease caused by the parasite, does occasionally occur, but it’s more likely in kittens and in cats that have suppressed immune systems, such as those with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) or Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV).

Related: What Is Feline Leukemia?

Toxoplasmosis symptoms include lethargy, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and fever. Also, depending upon whether the infection is chronic or acute, and where the parasite is within the cat’s body, other symptoms could occur. For example, if the parasitic infection is in the lungs, a cat may develop pneumonia.

The infection could also affect the central nervous system and the eyes, resulting in inflammation within the eyes, blindness, an abnormal response to light, personality changes, head pressing, difficulty chewing and swallowing, lack of coordination, heightened sensitivity to touch, seizures, twitching of the ears, a loss of control over defecation and urination, and circling.

What Is the Treatment?

If your cat is exhibiting any signs of illness, have your vet examine your pet to determine the cause. Tests will tell your vet whether or not your cat has Toxoplasmosis and, if so, the doctor may prescribe a course of antibiotics and medications designed to inhibit the parasite’s reproduction.

Should You Worry About Infection?

Remember, cats only shed the eggs for a few days, so your exposure will be small if your cat becomes infected. It’s also unlikely that you’ll be exposed to this parasite through cat scratches or bites, or by touching an infected cat. In fact, humans are more likely to get infected by consuming unwashed produce and raw meat, drinking contaminated water, or being exposed to sandboxes and garden soil where the parasite is present.

Humans with compromised immune systems are at a greater risk of getting Toxoplasmosis. If a pregnant woman contracts the disease, it could affect the fetus. For these reasons, some individuals need to be extra strict with hygiene and take additional precautions, such as wearing gloves, cleaning the litter box twice a day, and, of course, always washing hands when finished.

Avoiding Exposure for You and Your Kitty

Keep your cat indoors at all times in order to prevent her from hunting wild animals that could be carrying the parasite. To be sure your cat isn’t infected, you can have your veterinarian conduct the appropriate tests.

Ultimately, knowing what Toxoplasmosis is will help you take the right steps to prevent infection and keep both your family and your kitty healthy. Like any other parasitic infection, it’s important to have the facts, practice good hygiene, and work with your vet to give your pet the right treatment.

Lisa Selvaggio
Lisa Selvaggio

Lisa Selvaggio is a freelance writer and editor, and our resident cats-pert, with certifications in pet nutrition and pet first aid. She enjoys producing content that helps people understand animals better so they can give their pets a safe and happy home.

More by Lisa Selvaggio