The cat population in America is on the rise. By recent estimates, there are now upwards of 96 million furry felines owned as pets and another 25 million feral cats taking up residence in the United States today.
But as lovable as these cute kitties may be, their poop… Not so much. With recent studies drawing new connections between cat scat and human illness, their waste is gaining attention as a vast and underappreciated public health concern.
It’s estimated that the 121 million cats living in our country collectively deposit more than 2.8 billion pounds of waste every year. What’s more, health officials are now saying that most of this waste contains Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that can infect humans and lead to compromised immune systems, birth defects and even mental illness.
It’s long been known that some cats carry Toxoplasma gondii, which is passed through their waste in an embryonic form of the parasite called oocysts. These oocysts are the infectious agents of Toxoplasma gondii and only one is needed to cause an infection in humans.
The way cats become infected by Toxoplasma gondii is by eating infected animals in the wild; most often, birds. Once transmission has taken place, cats begin to deposit oocysts in a matter of days, shedding as many as 810 million of them in their poop.
In cat litter, the parasite is viable for approximately 48 hours. In some conditions, however, such as sandboxes and gardens, oocysts can remain active for up to a year and a half.
The growing concerns about infected cat waste are due to recent studies suggesting (although not decisively proving) a link between high levels of Toxoplasma gondii and schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and suicidal behavior. In pregnant women, the parasite has been linked to fetal abnormalities such as deafness, vision loss and mental retardation.
What can you do?
There are a number of simple precautions cat owners can take to reduce the threat of Toxoplasma gondii infection, including wearing gloves when cleaning the litter box; disposing of cat waste in the garbage instead of the toilet; covering outdoor sandboxes when not in use; and washing hands and vegetables thoroughly when gardening.
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