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Cats and Toxoplasma: Implications for Public Health

Authors


H. A. Dabritz. Infant Botulism Treatment and Prevention Program, California Department of Public Health, 850 Marina Bay Pkwy, E-361, Richmond, CA 94804, USA. Tel.: +1 510 231 7603; Fax: +1 510 231 7609; E-mail: haydee.dabritz@cdph.ca.gov

Summary

Cats are popular as pets worldwide because they are easy to care for and provide companionship that enriches the lives of human beings. Little attention has been focused on their potential to contaminate the environment with zoonotic pathogens. One such pathogen, the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii, rarely causes clinical manifestations in cats or immunocompetent humans; however, it can have serious adverse effects on human foetuses and immunocompromised patients. Many human infections are believed to be acquired from eating undercooked or raw meat, such as pork and lamb (Tenter et al. Int. J. Parasitol., 30, 2000, 1217; Dubey et al. J. Parasitol. 91, 2005, 1082). However, the prevalence of T. gondii infection in human populations that do not consume meat or eat it well-cooked suggests that the acquisition of infection from the environment, via oocysts in soil, water or on uncooked vegetables, is also important (Rawal. Trans. Royal Soc. Trop. Med. Hyg., 53, 1959, 61; Roghmann et al. Am. J. Trop. Med. Hyg., 60, 1999, 790; Chacin-Bonilla et al. Am. J. Trop. Med. Hyg., 65, 2001, 131). In the past 20 years, two changes occurred that significantly increased the size of the cat population in the USA. Pet cat ownership grew from 50 million to 90 million animals, and animal welfare activists created feeding stations for abandoned and free-roaming cats. As many cat owners allow their cats to deposit faeces outside and cats maintained in colonies always defecate outside, ample opportunity exists for T. gondii oocysts to enter the environment and be transmitted to humans. Prevention efforts should focus on educating cat owners about the importance of collecting cat faeces in litter boxes, spaying owned cats to reduce overpopulation, reducing the numbers of feral cats and promoting rigorous hand hygiene after gardening or soil contact.

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