Media Fuels Myths About Parasite Carried By Cats

Veterinarians say sensational headlines about a crazy cat disease that "turns women into sex-crazed kittens" mislead pet owners about toxoplasmosis, a parasite that is transiently shed by cats in their feces, but rarely transmitted to humans by touching cats.

New guidelines from The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) will help veterinarians respond to inquiries. The parasite has been studied for approximately 30 years, but news about toxoplasmosis is hitting headlines recently because of research published by Jaroslav Flegr, of Prague.

Originally released in 1994, Flegr’s research shows that people infected with Toxoplasma gondii act friendlier than normal, prompting media allusions to women becoming sex kittens and men becoming tomcats.

Cats should not be portrayed as dangerous, says Michael Lappin, DVM, PhD, professor at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine, who has studied the parasite for 15 years. "People have a greater chance of contracting the parasite by eating undercooked meats and unwashed vegetables from the garden than by interacting with a household cat," Lappin said. "Getting rid of your cat will not necessarily lessen your chance of developing toxoplasmosis. Cats only pass the parasite approximately seven days in an average 16-year lifespan, and about 30 percent of cats are exposed."

The parasite has to be out of the body for one to five days before it is infectious. It lives in feces for months in the environment, however, which is why humans can be infected by ingesting contaminated food or water, Lappin said.

AAFP Zoonotic Guidelines, which outline how to avoid diseases like toxoplasmosis for professionals and cat owners, appear in the December issue of Compendium on Continuing Education for the Practicing Veterinarian.

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