Feline Zoonosis (part one): Perfect Storm Required

Despite my very evident concern for your safety as a pet owner (see: all previous posts), there are actually only a handful of illnesses you can catch from your dog or cat. The medical term for shared infections like that is zoonotic disease. Cats have slightly more zoonotic potential than dogs. (That doesn’t make them an inherently more dangerous pet. The real reason cats are more dangerous than dogs is their fascination with mayhem and their casual disregard for the welfare of others.)

One notorious cat parasite that can be spread to humans is toxoplasmosis. This is the organism that has historically thrown up a barrier between pregnant women and their beloved pet cats. At one time, physicians recommended that women give up cat ownership due to pregnancy. Hopefully, that’s all in the past, but a few facts might be useful to navigate this often misunderstood topic.

“Toxo” is a very boring infection without any consequences for the vast majority of the population, but it’s not great if you are a human fetus or an immunocompromised person. It can be present in the feces of cats, but only for ten days (of their entire life), shortly after they catch it themselves by hunting and eating other animals. A human could be exposed to this, but only during those ten unlucky days, and only if they neglect to wash up after cleaning the litter box, and only if the waste has been sitting out for a couple of days. It was once routine to separate pregnant women and HIV patients from their cats, but acquiring toxoplasmosis from your pet would be an extremely improbable turn of events.

If you are an average person, this has little impact on you. If you are pregnant or immunocompromised (chemo patients, HIV, organ transplant recipients, autoimmune disease), please don’t get rid of your cat. Someone else can empty the boxes, or you can just do that every day, without skipping, and wash your hands afterward. Wear gloves if you want. It’s not recommended that you get new cats all the time (e.g., fostering for the shelter), obtain one from outdoors, or adopt a kitten while you’re pregnant. You shouldn’t let your cat eat raw meat (not even a “raw diet” marketed for cats) or hunt for mice and birds. You yourself must be vigilant about food safety: uncooked meat can’t touch anything else, and produce should always be washed before eating. In your condition, it would be foolish to deliberately ingest raw meat in the form of steak tartare or anything going by the name “carpaccio”. Do stay away from uncovered sand boxes and wear gloves when gardening. Both of these venues are attractive to ownerless cats, who can be imprudent about what they choose to eat and rarely, if ever, attend to their health by seeing a veterinarian. But please don’t rehome your pet over this. The fact is, you are far more likely to pick up toxoplasmosis from the garden, playground, or kitchen. From your own pet cat, the chances are really remote.

Dr. M.S. Regan