If you're a cat owner, especially one who is pregnant or has a baby, you've probably heard about something called Toxoplasma gondii.
If you do not fall into one of those categories and are suddenly wondering if you should be worried, there's probably no need. The only people who face potential risk from Toxoplasma gondii are pregnant who have not been previously infected, children under six months of age, or those who have experienced a weakened immune system due to something like cancer treatment or HIV.
Right now, it is estimated that 20% of the population in the US is infected with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that reproduces sexually only in cats and passed through infected birds.
After being infected with the parasite, it often lays dormant after the individual experiences flu-like symptoms for a few days. Once dormant, if this parasite becomes active it causes a disease known as toxoplasmosis. Those that become infected with toxoplasmosis can experience a range of neurological problems, such as seizures.
It's important to note that if a woman is previously infected becomes pregnant, this won't be an issue as her immune system will keep the infection in check. However, if a woman becomes infected for the first time during pregnancy, an infection will cross the placenta which can lead to fetal death, stillbirth, or birth issues such as cognitive deficits and eye disease.
This may sound scary, but Dr. Grigg, a senior investigator with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stresses that it really isn't:
"It is quite possibly the most successful parasite on the planet, but if you have a working immune system, you really have almost nothing to worry about."
If you do have a cat and become pregnant or develop a weakened immune system, there are precautions you can take. For starters, avoid changing your cat's litter box yourself. Litter boxes should also be disinfected regularly, by cleaning it out and rinsing the box with boiling water.
If possible, it's also suggested to keep your cat indoors and feed them pre-cooked tin food, eliminating the chance they could contract the parasite from eating raw bird meat.
If you have any concerns about the parasite, your doctor will be able to provide you with plenty of information and reassurance.
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