Does this look like the face of a killer? Well, OB/GYNs have been warning pregnant ladies for years about the risks of the cat-borne parasite toxoplasma gondii, which causes toxoplasmosis. The parasite can cause serious birth defects and miscarriages, and can kill newborns. But now it turns out adults are at greater risk of infection than previously believed.
According to the CDC, toxoplasmosis has infected 22.5 percent of the human population in the United States. The CDC lists toxoplasmosis as one of the leading causes of human death attributed to food-borne illness in the U.S. There are no symptoms of infection in healthy adults, but the CDC says that the parasite can cause serious illness or death in people with an immunodeficiency, like newborns, people undergoing chemotherapy and AIDS patients.
“Until recently, it was believed that most transmission occurred from undercooked meat,” says a recent report from BluePearl Veterinary Partners, a group of specialty and emergency veterinary hospitals. “But new studies are suggesting far more environmental contamination from cat feces is occurring than was originally understood” says Dr. Neil Shaw, chief medical officer of the group. “While this information can be frightening, we want people to know the spread of this dangerous disease can be prevented. The most important thing a person can do is be responsible and that means taking proper sanitary precautions if you own a pet.”
BluePearl Veterinary Partners recommends the following precautions:
- Clean the litter box at least once every 24 hours.
- Pregnant women or people who are immune deficient should avoid cleaning the litter box. If they must, they should wear proper protective equipment like gloves and a mask.
- Wash hands after cleaning the litter box or handling pets.
- Maintain regular visits with your veterinarian. BluePearl recommends taking your pet to your family veterinarian twice a year for checkups.
- If you think your cat may be infected with toxoplasmosis, contact your family veterinarian. A blood test can be performed and antibiotics can be given.
It seems obvious that you should always wash your hands after scooping the litter box, and I don’t know how anyone could go about their day without doing so, but it’s easy to block out the fact that cats track litter with them wherever they go. So if you have a cat, maybe start obsessively washing your hands all the time, a la Lady Macbeth– or at least before you eat or touch your mouth.