Toxoplasma gondii. 7 syllables sure to strike fear in to any pregnant woman’s heart. I thought I’d do a little post today to summarise what toxoplasma actually is and how it affects us and the animals around us.
Toxoplasma gondii is a single celled parasite known as a protozoa. It has a complex lifecycle involving felines as its only final host. It does, however, have a vast array of ‘intermediate hosts’ thought to include virtually all warm blooded animals. It’s a very successful parasite infecting animals and humans worldwide. In France, 84% of people are thought to be infected.
Its lifecycle is as follows:
- A cat becomes infected through consuming the raw meat of infected prey
- The parasite infects the epithelial cells of the cat’s gut, sexually reproducing in these cells
- Sexual reproduction produces oocysts which are shed in the cat’s faeces. The time period from consumption to shedding is around 3-10 days. Shedding only occurs for a few weeks before the cat’s immune system fights off the parasite, resulting in a persistent but non-shedding infection that can remain for life. After one infection it is highly unlikely the cat will get infected and shed again due to its raised immune response, however immunosuppression can result in subsequent shedding
- These oocysts develop in the environment and after 1-5 days are developed enough to infect an intermediate host
- Intermediate host ingests the oocysts through consumption of an item or fluid infected with cat faeces. Intestinal enzymes break down the oocyst wall releasing the parasite in to the gut
- Acute asexual multiplication occurs in the intermediate host cells and the parasite is spread around the body in the blood
- After around 2 weeks the host develops immunity but the infection enters a chronic phase as slow-growing forms of the parasite are ‘walled off’ into what is known as a cyst, protected from the immune system. These can remain infectious for months to years and can revert to the acute form if the host’s immune system becomes depressed (FIV, AIDs, canine distemper). They are often found in the brain and muscle.
- This cyst-infected meat is consumed by the cat and the whole cycle begins again
Cats can also get infected by consuming oocysts from other cats, however they are a lot less susceptible to this than other intermediate hosts so a large number of oocysts would need to be consumed. To make it even more confusing, intermediate hosts can get infected via carnivorism/ scavenging when they consume meat infected with cysts (e.g. a human eating undercooked, infected pork). As well as this, transplacental transmission can occur in some host species during the acute phase of the infection (however this is not seen in dogs or cats). This creates a complex web of infection. The cysts are killed when meat is cooked.
Toxoplasmosis is most often asymptomatic, with flu-like symptoms possible during the acute phase. It can be fatal in immunosuppressed individuals, however this is rare. You may have heard the parasite’s name mentioned in relation to sheep. If a non-immune ewe is infected during pregnancy it can cause foetal death, reabsorption, abortion, mummified foetuses, still births and weak lambs, depending on when in pregnancy the ewe was infected. In cases of abortion, you can see tiny white spots on the placenta and foetal tissue. Diagnosis can be confirmed through stained impression smears or serological examination of the foetal fluid or blood from the ewe. Prevention in sheep includes a vaccine which primes the immune system to the parasite. Sheep are often infected from eating infected hay or concentrates, so keeping cats away from these can help reduce infection rates.
Toxoplasma is also a favourite in the press, who claim that it ‘controls our brains’ and causes abortions and deformities. Like in sheep, infection of a non-immune, pregnant mother can indeed cause deformities in her child. Does this mean we should all kill off our cats when expecting? Definitely not, and I’ll explain why.
As I stated earlier, infected cats will only shed for 2-3 weeks in their entire lifetime, unless immunologically supressed. To become infected by your cat, you would need to have never been infected before yourself (because if you have, your immune system is primed and ready to fight it off), your cat would have to be in the shedding phase and you’d have to ingest oocytes (that take 1-5 days to become infective, so changing the litter box daily can hugely reduce this risk). If worried, a blood test to see if you’ve been previously exposed and a blood test in your cat to see if they’ve been previously exposed may put your mind at rest. Indoor cats are less likely to become infected if their only food is tinned or dried. Humans are much more likely to be exposed to the infection through handling and eating undercooked infected meat, soil infected with cat faeces and unwashed vegetables. If you’re a vet in the making and have been on a lambing placement, you may well have been asked if you’re pregnant. This is because being in contact with aborted material from sheep with toxoplasmosis is another way to contract the infection.
As for the ‘mind control’, it has been found that mice infected with toxoplasma are attracted to the smell of cat urine and a lot less frightened of cats than those without infection. This is an incredibly clever mechanism and probably one of the reasons the parasite is so wide-spread. In humans, when analysing the number of people who are involved in car accidents, it was found that a significantly high proportion were infected with toxoplasma gondii. It has been suggested that the parasite is responsible for making people more reckless and argumentative. Toxoplasma cysts in the brain could definitely be responsible for parts of your personality, however conclusions at the moment suggest that although the infection may have some effect, the brain and concept of ‘personality’ are so complex and involve so many factors that its overall influence seems negligible.
I hope this made sense, it’s quite confusing to explain! I’ve drawn a quick diagram to try and demonstrate the different scenarios in which we could become infected. Enjoy!