It’s Friday the 13th. Somehow that seems appropriate to address creepy, without-a-clue reportage that does more damage than good. I’m at Thrillerfest this weekend where we’re discussing all sorts of mayhem but that’s make-believe. When bad info crosses over into “real life” that can cause lots of problems.
Every once in a while cats get demonized once again for causing everything from sucking the breath from babies to causing male pattern baldness. Now they’ve been linked to increase suicide risk. On purpose. Because they’re evil.
Huh? Even if they WERE evil, cats are too smart to kill the two-legged servants who hold the keys to the pantry and can openers. Just give me a break!
It’s that toxoplasmosis bug, not cats, that MIGHT increase risk of suicide and honestly, you’ll be more likely to contract that creepy parasite by munching unwashed lettuce.
WHAT IS TOXOPLASMOSIS?
The single cell organism Toxoplasma gondii, a parasitic protozoan, can be found in nearly all mammals (including cats and dogs), and has evolved to infect people and animals without making them sick. It’s been estimated that half the people in the United States have been exposed–60 million men, women and children–already carry this parasite, but never developed symptoms. When they do, the most common sign in both people and pets is transient swelling of the lymph glands. Sort of like flu.
However, the disease can cause life-threatening illness in immune suppressed people, as well as unborn babies of pregnant mothers who become infected during the pregnancy–and the mom rarely show any symptoms.
THE KITTY CONNECTION & FELINE BLAME GAME
Cats become infected either by swallowing the infective stage of the protozoan from the environment, by eating infected animals, or by eating raw meat. The protozoan multiplies in the wall of the small intestine and produce egg-like oocysts. Infected cats are the only animals that pass on these immature forms of the organism; they are shed in the cat’s stool. And THAT’S how kitty got the bad rap. However, the oocysts are passed in great numbers in the cat’s feces for only two to three weeks. Once this stage is passed it’s rare for the cat to ever again shed the eggs.
THE DOWN & DIRTY ON THE DANGERS
It takes two to five days for the oocysts to mature into infective forms of the organism. These organisms can survive in moist or shady soil or sand for many months. The disease is spread when an animal or a person swallows these infective organisms.
Once inside the bird, rodent, cat or person, the protozoan continues to mature, causing pockets of disease throughout the body. If the victim survives this stage of the illness, usually symptoms go away and the disease becomes dormant; the protozoan remains in certain muscle tissues and even the brain.
Cats are diagnosed when a microscopic examination of their stool reveals oocysts, which means the cat is at that time capable of spreading disease. A blood test shows if the cat has ever been exposed. A positive test in an otherwise healthy cat means Kitty is actively immune, and is an unlikely source of disease. In fact, cats rarely show signs of the disease. The immune system of most cats interferes with the life cycle of the organism, so that toxoplasmosis in cats enters a dormant phase often for the remaining lifetime of the cat.
EASY TO PREVENT
Don’t let anyone (your mom, sister, friend, or even doctor!) scare you into giving up your cat by whispering about the dangers of toxoplasmosis. Yes, the disease can be dangerous especially to unborn babies, but a pregnant woman would have to be pretty unsanitary to catch anything from her cat.
It’s easy to prevent the spread of the disease. Since several days are needed for the oocysts to become infective, simply cleaning the cat’s litter box each day eliminates that route of infection. People in high-risk groups, such as pregnant women or those with compromised immune systems should have someone else perform litter box duty.
The chance of contracting toxoplasmosis from a well cared for pet cat is extremely low. The most common infection source in people in the United States is undercooked or raw meat, especially pork, or unwashed raw veggies.
To reduce risk even further, wash your hands after handling raw meat, and cook it thoroughly before eating. Don’t feed your cat undercooked or raw foods, and prevent the cat from hunting. Wear gloves while working in the garden to prevent contracting the disease from the soil.
If you plan to become pregnant, ease your worries by asking the doctor to perform a blood test to see if you’ve ever been exposed to the disease. If a woman has been infected before becoming pregnant, she’ll be immune and her future baby will be protected against infection.
MORE EXPERT INFO RESOURCES
There is much more information available at the CAPC site about toxoplasmosis. For those of you who would like to listen to an audio podcast instead of reading, here’s a great AVMA podcast interview about toxoplasmosis with Dr. Jane Brunt, executive director of the CATalyst Council, and owner and director of the Cat Hospital at Towson in Baltimore. You can also find out more information at the Centers for Disease Control.
This video is one of my most popular and most watched–when a well known pediatrician also got his facts wrong. There’s lots of mis-information out there. But those of us who love cats…and what people protected, too…are doing our part. Please share this post!
Or else the ZOMBIE CAT APOCALYPSE WILL EAT YOUR BRAINS–REALLY–I’M NOT JOKING!
So what kinds of hurtful, clueless MYTH-TAKES have you helped debunk about your cat (or your dog?). How do you change the tied against ignorance? Please offer tips here–it’s important.
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Don’t forget to check out the NAME THAT DOG/CAT character in the forthcoming THRILLER, LOST & FOUND! Poll with SEMIFINAL NAMES for you to vote to be posted next week so get your suggestions in ASAP.