Browsing tag: decreased appetite

Toxoplasmosis gondii, Pregnancy and Cats – Fact vs. Fiction

Well over halfway through my second pregnancy, I am currently inundated with comments from clients, mostly positive, and it has added a bit of humour and lively conversation to my otherwise increasingly tiring days. ‘Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?’ ‘How do you think your toddler is going to react to the new baby?’ ‘Are you going to come back to work after two children?’ But one question I wasn’t expecting came from a woman with a lovely ginger tom – ‘Are you sure you’re OK to examine my cat if you’re pregnant?’ I laughed and assured her that despite my expanding waistline I could still reach the table and her cat would be fine. But after a slightly confused and very embarrassed smile, she explained that she had recently been told by a friend that she would have to give up her beloved cat once she became pregnant because it wasn’t safe for pregnant women to be around cats. It had been a while since I had heard that myth and was saddened to hear it again, but I wasn’t terribly surprised. We spent most of the rest of the consultation discussing the real facts about toxoplasmosis, the disease in question, and she left very much relieved that her feline friend was not going to have to be evicted should she ever decide to have a baby, and determined to speak to her GP if she had any further concerns.

What causes toxoplasmosis?

Amber-on-grassToxoplasma gondii, the protozoal parasite responsible for causing the disease known as toxoplasmosis, is a tiny single-celled organism that can infect many different species from mice to sheep to humans. Cats, however, are the only hosts in which the parasite can reproduce, so in addition to being infected themselves, they can also release oocysts (which are essentially the eggs from which new organisms are created) in their faeces. These eggs are very resistant and can survive in some environments for months, allowing other animals to ingest them with their food. When other animals such as mice become infected with the parasite, it develops to form tiny cysts in their muscles and waits there until the animal is eaten by another cat so it can begin the cycle all over again. Most animals, therefore, are capable of spreading the infection through the consumption of their flesh, but only cats are able to spread it via their faeces.

What happens to cats that are infected with toxoplasmosis?

The short answer to this question is, well, usually not much. In fact, unless the cat is otherwise ill or immunocompromised (young kittens, or those with FIV or FeLV), most owners don’t even notice if their cat becomes infected. If cats do show symptoms, these usually include fever, decreased appetite and lethargy. Rarely, more serious cases may develop pneumonia, blindness or inflammation of the eyes, or more commonly, neurological symptoms such as personality changes, loss of balance, walking in circles, difficulty swallowing, or seizures.

How are people infected and why is it so dangerous?

People can become infected by handling the faeces of infected cats (but only during the few weeks after they become infected for the first time, after that they stop shedding the eggs), gardening in soil that has been defecated in by recently infected cats, or more commonly, eating undercooked meat of any kind as animals such as lambs and pigs can also be infected (the cooking process kills the organism). But as you’ll see below, all of these things are easily prevented with simple and common sense measures. There are three main health concerns when it comes to humans. The first and most well-known risk group is pregnant women. Expectant mothers that pick up the disease for the first time during pregnancy (ie, NOT those that have already been exposed to it earlier in life) do not usually show symptoms themselves but are capable of passing the infection on to their unborn child. In these cases, vision and hearing loss, mental disabilities and occasionally even death of the child are possible. So there is certainly cause for concern. The second group of people that are particularly at risk are those that already have immune systems that are deficient, such as those with HIV or AIDS or who are on chemotherapy. Finally, although the vast majority of people who become infected with the toxoplasma organism (and that includes a staggering one third to one half of the world’s human population!) show only mild flu-like symptoms if any at all, it has recently been linked to some pretty serious conditions such as brain tumours, attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and possibly even an increase in suicide risk. But because most people don’t know they have it, it isn’t something that is routinely screened for so a lot more studies need to be done before we know the true effects of the illness in all species, not just humans.

If toxoplasmosis can do all that, why would anybody own a cat??

Domino-sleepingBecause even though cats spread the disease, we are very unlikely to catch it directly from them. Cats are only capable of spreading the disease for the first 2-3 weeks after they are first infected. After that, they are immune to new infections and although they may later show symptoms, they are not later contagious. And then even if your cat was shedding eggs, there has to be direct ingestion of the contaminated faecal material by humans. Not many of us (perhaps toddlers aside…) will intentionally consume cat faeces, but we will sometimes come inside after gardening and grab a quick sandwich without remembering to wash our hands. This is not a problem with the cat itself, rather our own personal hygiene. It is extremely unlikely that you would pick up toxoplasmosis by petting your cat or being scratched or bitten by your cat, because the organism is not spread by the fur or saliva. You CAN, however, pick up toxoplasmosis by eating undercooked infected meat, particularly lamb and pork. Again, this is not your cat’s fault, rather our own lack of taste or culinary skills, and is by far the most common way of picking up the disease in developed countries.

What’s the best way to avoid becoming infected?

Use common sense, and if you are pregnant, take a few extra precautions and chances are you’ll be just fine. Unless you already have it, which is probably more likely than you care to acknowledge, but chances are you’ll never know it so you might as well do these things anyway!

• Don’t eat raw or undercooked meat or drink unpasteurised milk. And once you’re finished preparing raw meat, wash your hands and all surfaces that it may have touched.

• Wash fruits and vegetables before eating them, even if they came from your own organic garden.

• Wash your hands well after gardening and before eating, especially for children, goodness knows where those hands have been…

• Pregnant women, and people with suppressed immune systems, should not clean the litter tray (I don’t know many pregnant women who wouldn’t jump at the chance to make their partner clean the litter tray). Or if you must clean the litter tray yourself, wear gloves, wash your hands well and try to remove the stools daily as faeces that have been sitting around for a few days are more infectious.

Toxoplasmosis is a serious illness and can cause serious harm to both cats and humans. But contrary to what many people believe, living with a cat only slightly increases your chance of catching the disease and with the help of simple common sense measures like those mentioned above, this risk can be minimised. So yes, I’m perfectly happy to keep working and living with cats, and hopefully you will be too. But if you do have any questions regarding either your own health or that of your family, make an appointment to speak with your GP and make sure everybody is aware of the facts rather than the myths about toxoplasmosis.

If you are worried about your cat talk to your vet or use our Interactive Cat Symptom Guide to check any symptoms they may be showing and see how soon you should visit your vet.

How Do You Know If A Cat Is In Pain?

DenbyIt sounds like such a simple question, but the answer is actually far more complicated than we think. And it’s not just cat owners who struggle with this question, those of us who have studied these creatures for years still frequently miss signs of feline pain. Because when it comes to showing signs of pain (or any illness for that matter), cats are masters of disguise. In the feline world, complaining gets you nowhere, and showing signs of weakness can get you killed. Sure, some cats in pain will cry out, but if you see a cat crying out in pain, the problem is likely very severe indeed. Besides, cats cry out for many reasons, so even if you do see this, how can you tell if it is due to pain or some other form of stress? Next time you think your cat may be in pain, try to remember some of the following signs of feline discomfort:

• Lameness:
Ok, we’ll start with an easy one. But you’d be surprised how many people come to me with a limping cat who insist that they are not in pain. If your cat is limping, he’s doing it for a reason. And that reason is usually pain. Even if your cat doesn’t have a limp, check for other signs like difficulty jumping up or down from the bed or finding that it’s not worth their effort to climb the stairs anymore. Arthritis is hugely underdiagnosed in cats because many owners either don’t observe or don’t think to mention these changes. If you do notice something unusual with your cat’s behaviour, please speak up as sometimes vets don’t think to ask these kinds of questions.

• Vocalisation
Yes, as previously mentioned, some cats in pain (particularly severe, sudden pain) will cry out or howl. If you see this, take them to the vet immediately to have them checked out, even if you can’t see anything else wrong with them. But it’s not always a howl that they make; sometimes it’s just a more insistent meow, or even a lack of sounds such as normal greetings or cries for food.

• Decreased appetite
Speaking of food, it’s true that some cats in pain will either stop eating, or not eat as much as normal. But not every cat will respond this way because in the wild, a cat that doesn’t eat will die so if they are able to eat despite even very significant pain, they often will.

• Hiding
A cat in pain will often hide from you. You may notice them spending more and more time under the bed or in the back of the cupboard. Or, you may notice that they are quite restless and have a hard time settling in any one place. To you, it may just seem like odd behaviour but to them, it can be a cry for help. Hiding isn’t the only behaviour that can indicate pain, any change in their normal routine may be a clue no matter how subtle, so try to take notice and figure out why the change occurred.

• Eye position and expression
This one is much more subtle, and unless you are very observant you may not pick up on it at all. A painful cat may sometimes have slanted eyes that are squinting or partially closed. They may also have dilated pupils (the blacks of their eyes look very large or ‘wide eyed’), and a generally strange expression on their face. Or they may seem to ‘zone out’ and just stare blankly ahead. Now there are lots of reasons why a cat will show one or more of these things, so don’t be too quick to diagnose your cat as painful if you don’t notice any other signs. But if you do notice a strange look in their eyes, it’s probably best to have them checked out by a vet.

Amber-on-grass• Posture
If you picture a happy cat in your mind, you may think of one who is relaxed and playfully rolling around in response to a good petting session. Now consider the opposite – a painful cat will often sit in a hunched, guarded position. Their muscles may be quite tense, and they will flinch or pull away when touched. Some cats just don’t like being touched, but if yours normally does and then suddenly doesn’t, consider pain as a possible cause.

• Aggression
As previously mentioned, a painful cat won’t want to be touched and this often leads to aggression. If you stroke your cat and he turns around to bite or scratch you, or if he hisses at you when touched, or even if he just starts to twitch his tail in an agitated manner when there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it, get him checked out by the vet.

• Licking, chewing, or fur loss
Cats will sometimes make a fuss over the particular part of their body that is in pain, but this is not always the case. Some cats with cystitis (bladder disease) will lick their tummies and cause fur loss in that area. Likewise, some cats with arthritis in a particular joint may lick or chew at that area more frequently than normal. Rarely, this licking is enough to cause damage to the overlying skin.

• Other medical changes
There are some signs of pain that only your vet is likely to pick up on (although you may notice that something just doesn’t seem right), including increased heart rate, breathing rate, temperature or blood pressure. Because these things require the help of a professional to properly measure, it is very important that you take your cat in to the vet whenever you suspect something out of the ordinary.

As you can see, pain in cats is no simple subject. There are some obvious signs of course, but many more that may go unnoticed for some time. Therefore, if you do happen to notice any of the above signs, it’s always best to take your cat to the vet to have them checked out as soon as possible. Even then, it can be very difficult to tell if they are in pain, so sometimes the best test is to treat for any possible pain and then re-evaluate to see if it made any difference. Whatever you do, try not to ignore it because unlike humans, who are very good at expressing discomfort, cats will most often suffer in silence and it’s our job to make sure they don’t have to.

If you are worried that your cat may be showing signs of pain described above, talk to your vet or try our Interactive Cat Symptom Guide to check any other symptoms you notice.

More Useful Information

Examining your pet

Simple ways to check the health of your pet. Vets use these techniques as part of their clinical examiniation.

Medicating your pet

Arming you with the same simple techniques for stress free pill giving.

Worming & Flea Treatment

Information and advice in treating your pet for worms and fleas.