Toxoplasmosis (toxo) infection is a parasite infection caused by Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii). This parasite is a coccidian-type organism of the same family as Coccidia and Cryptosporidium. The cat is the definitive host for T. gondii, which lives deep in the cells for much of its lifecycle and is difficult to kill with conventional antibiotics.
How Do Cats Get Toxoplasmosis
The three major modes of transmission of toxoplasmosis are congenital from mom, ingestion of infected tissue, and ingestion of oocyst-contaminated food or water. Cats are the definitive host of T. gondii, meaning that the parasite completes its life cycle in the cat and becomes an adult. Cats shed the T. gondii oocyst in feces for one to two weeks after first exposure, but they rarely show any symptoms during the oocyst shedding.
Other mammals become infected by ingesting the oocysts, which then penetrate the intestinal tissue. Infection can occur from ingesting contaminated food or water and also by ingesting the infected tissue of birds or rodents. Prenatal infection in all mammals can cause serious issues for embryos and even result in abortion, and clinical issues may be influenced by immune suppression from stress of pregnancy. All warm-blooded mammals can acquire toxoplasmosis infection, and it is not well understood why some become ill and some do not.
Toxoplasmosis Symptoms in Cats
Most cats do not show clinical signs. All animals, besides cats, are intermediate hosts and the clinical picture depends on what tissue is affected with the toxo cyst. If the brain has cyst presence or neurologic tissue, there will be neurologic symptoms such as ataxia, circling, seizures, twitching or tremors. If a fetus is infected, symptoms include stillbirth, birth defects, fading kittens or organ failure.
How is Toxoplasmosis Diagnosed in Cats
PCR testing is now available and is very accurate at detecting toxo circulating in the feces, blood or tissue. However, the presence of the parasite does not mean that there is a clinical issue; it only means that the organism is present.
Titers are ran on blood and can tell you whether infection occurred and if antibodies are present. Antibodies alone usually won’t clear the infection, but they do help prevent clinical issues and shedding of the oocysts in the feces. When the immune system is stressed, toxoplasma can reactivate and you can see clinical toxoplasmosis reoccur.
Toxo can be diagnosed by examining the tissues of an aborted fetus.
How to Treat Toxoplasmosis in Cats
Treatment is difficult as the toxoplasma organism spends most of its time deep inside the tissue. Clindamycin is still the preferred treatment of infected animals and humans, but other antibiotics that penetrate the cells are effective as well. Treatment does not prevent cats from producing antibodies that prevent subsequent shedding if exposed again.
Toltrazuril (Baycox) is commonly used in purebred kittens to prevent Coccidia and toxoplasmosis. One European paper was presented where a cattery was cleared of toxo using Baycox.
How to Prevent Toxoplasmosis in Cats
Pets should be restricted from hunting and eating potential intermediate hosts such as birds and rodents. If feeding meat to pets, freezing and cooking the meat will kill the parasites. A balanced, commercial diet is safe from parasite issues.
Toxoplasmosis and Human Pregnancy
Because toxoplasmosis can infect all warm-blooded mammals including humans, there are certain precautions that pregnant women should take. Pregnant women should avoid contact with a cat’s litter box. The cleaning of the litter box should be done by someone else. Pregnant women should avoid eating raw or undercooked meat, especially goat or pork. Ask your obstetrician for more recommendations on toxoplasmosis.
If you have more questions on toxo in cats, call us at 800.786.4751.
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Written by: Donald Bramlage, DVM
Donald Bramlage, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, practiced veterinary medicine for 30+ years and is known for his work in managing parvovirus. He received his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Kansas State University in 1985. He served as Revival’s Director of Veterinary Services from 2011 until his retirement in 2019.