According to a new study, free-roaming cats may be responsible for the spread of a potentially dangerous brain parasite to wild animals.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia discovered that both domestic and feral outdoor cats could be the driving force behind infections of Toxoplasma gondii in surrounding wildlife and humans, as reported by George Dvorsky for io9.
The single-celled parasite is microscopic and can be found inside the soil, water, unprocessed meat, and animal bodies.
Toxoplasma gondii has been linked to mouse behavior changes that lead to a lack of fear of feline predators.
Toxoplasmosis is one of the most prevalent parasites in the world and has been linked to a variety of health concerns in humans, including birth defects and miscarriages.
The study’s lead author, Rebecca Johnson, said that the findings could have important implications for public health.
This study provides the first evidence that feral and pet cats are infecting wildlife with toxoplasmosis across an urban-rural gradient in CanadaRebecca Johnson
Toxoplasmosis is a very serious disease that can affect anybody, even if they have healthy immune systems.
Brandon Sun reported for the Toronto Star that it has been linked to nervous system disorders and cancers, among other things.
Cats usually acquire toxoplasmosis by eating contaminated wild animals or uncooked meat, making outdoor cats especially vulnerable.
Toxoplasma gondii is carried by millions of free-roaming cats in the United States, which, in addition to killing huge numbers of birds and other wild animals, hosts and excretes the parasite.
In research published last month in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Science, researchers looked at more than 45,000 roadkill specimens and found that the parasite was present in 60 percent of raccoons, 45 percent of skunks, and 36 percent of opossums.
“The implications for human health are important, as Toxoplasma gondii is a leading cause of death from infection in pregnant women and their fetuses in the United States,”.
According to veterinarian and ecologist Amy Wilson from the University of British Columbia, who led the new study, “our research suggests that free-roaming domestic cats—whether pets or wild cats—are the most likely source of these illnesses as human densities rise.
Domestic cats are “the most significant host for toxoplasma,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
People can reduce their risk of getting toxoplasmosis by practicing good hygiene, cooking meat properly, and keeping cats indoors.
The parasite was also more common in warmer climes and among species with aquatic homes.
Climate change may be shifting how the disease spreads, since healthy forests and other ecosystems can keep dangerous pathogens like Toxoplasma gondii at bay, according to the research.
“Intense rainfall, for example, which might be expected to occur as a result of climate change, could wash the parasite into waterways where it could contaminate drinking water and recreational areas,” said Wilson.
The good news is that cat owners can keep themselves and their feline friends safe by simply keeping cats indoors.
Although free-roaming cats are subjected to greater stress and sickness, we already know this. “The message for cat owners is to begin transitioning your cat to supervised outside access,” Wilson explained in an interview with Simon Little for Global News.