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Whether it’s “pretty kitty” or “poor kitty,” the number of cats in the United States is growing—from 55 million pets in 1989 to 80 million in 2006. The number of feral cats is estimated between 25 to 60 million.

It’s long been known that cats, especially adopted or rescued ones and those who have the freedom of the out-of-doors, can carry a nasty parasite called Toxoplasma gondii that is excreted with the feces. It’s a single cell organism which creates infectious agents called oocysts. The oocysts can infect pregnant women and cause deafness, eye damage, seizures, and mental retardation in the baby. It also infects people with compromised immune systems.

Researchers, reviewing studies on the Toxoplasma parasite, find it also infects people who are otherwise healthy. It has been linked to schizophrenia, depression, suicidal behavior and lower school achievement in children.

Researcher E. Fuller Torrey, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Chevy Chase, MD, and pediatric infectious disease specialist, Dr. Robert Yolken, co-authored a recent report concerning the role of animals in the contamination of children’s play areas. Studies show that one percent of cats shed the infections oocysts at any given time. That’s about one million cats excreting as many as 50 million oocytes apiece every day. Oocysts survive for at least 18 months and only a single one is needed to cause infection.


Other animals, like sheep and cattle, eating infected food or grazing in areas where a cat has relieved itself in sometime past, can also acquire the parasite. Humans can also acquire the disease by eating raw or undercooked meat from the infected animals. Infections are much higher in countries where water is often contaminated and where food is often eaten raw.

It’s well-known that the parasite can survive in cat litter where the oocysts become aerosolized after 24-48 hours. The “Teach your child responsibility; have them clean the litter box” is not a parentally responsible idea unless the cat carries a clean bill of health and is an indoors cat only. Rescue cats and outdoor cats have increased risk factors. Children playing in sandboxes or gardeners working with their hands in the soil and not washing their hands or the produce properly may acquire the infection from felines who frequent the area.

The answer to that, of course, is to cover the sandbox when not in use; always wash hands well after contact with soil or sand, wear gloves in the garden, and thoroughly wash the produce. One can collect almost 100 oocysts under the fingernails while gardening!

Dr. Torrey notes that “this is a remarkably complex parasite, much more complicated than a virus.” He also notes that treatments are not very effective. “Most people do not have long-term effects, but some do.” He doesn’t say people shouldn’t have cats as pets. He just says that they should be aware of the possible downsides and recommends control of cat populations, especial feral ones.

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By Lois Pecce. Copyright © 2013 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines

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