Pet Points: Tips to prevent parasitic infections

Veterinarians can ask some fairly strange questions in the office. If a new client sees us for an exam with a cat, we might ask if anyone in the household is pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant. While this is a personal question, it is essential that we inform the client of the risk of Toxoplasmosis gondii.

Toxoplasmosis is a protozoan parasite that can cause a zoonotic infection that spreads from animals to humans. Infected healthy individuals usually have mild symptoms or none at all.

Some people who contract toxoplasmosis experience flu-like symptoms such as fever, swollen lymph nodes, muscle stiffness, sore joints or abdominal pain lasting from one to 12 weeks. However, pregnant women, fetuses, newborn infants and immune-compromised individuals may develop severe infection and associated complications.

Maternal toxoplasmosis is typically acquired by mouth and can be transmitted to the developing fetus via the placenta. Infection early in pregnancy can result in the loss of the pregnancy or infection-related problems in the fetus. The most severe infection can cause brain abnormalities and vision or hearing loss

Cats are the only species that can spread the infection in their stool. People can be infected by having poor hygiene and not washing their hands after cleaning the litter box or contacting cat feces in the garden or sand boxes.

The more common source of human infection, however, is by consuming raw or undercooked meat. Pork and lamb can be a common cause of infection without proper cooking. Raw goat milk is also a potential problem. Freezing food will kill toxoplasma organisms but not other food-borne illnesses. The risk is highest for pregnant women who have never been infected before, immuno-compromised people and the elderly.

Like many diseases veterinarians deal with, prevention is the key. Always follow these rules:

• Pregnant women should never handle cat feces. Stool should be removed daily or even twice a day by someone else in the household. It takes 24 hours for the stool to become infectious.

• Pregnant women should not contact stray cats or adopt a new outside cat and especially kittens.

• Cats should be kept indoors and not be permitted to hunt to avoid potential infections.

• Cats should never be fed raw meat.

• Gloves should be worn when gardening, and no one should have contact with an uncovered sand box. Hand washing is important.

• Pregnant women must avoid barns or other areas where cats have defecated.

• People should not consume raw meat or raw goat milk.

The Centers for Disease Control considers toxoplasmosis to be a leading cause of death attributed to food-borne illness in the United States. More than 60 million men, women and children carry the toxoplasma parasite, but few have symptoms because the immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness.

With proper precautions, cats do not pose a risk to pregnant women. I have heard of doctors suggesting that cats not remain in the house if a woman is pregnant. This is totally unnecessary if she is careful.

Lawrence Gerson is a veterinarian and founder of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic. His biweekly column is intended to educate pet owners. Consultation with a veterinarian is necessary to diagnose and treat individual pets. If you have a question, you'd like addressed in Pet Points,email Please include your name and municipality or neighborhood.