Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.
What is Toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which is one of the most common parasites found in developed countries. The parasite can infect virtually any warm-blooded mammal, including humans, but it is best known for being found in cats.
Cats are the only animal that toxoplasma gondii can begin and complete its life cycle within, which makes them important hosts to the parasite.
In healthy animals and humans, the parasite causes no symptoms. It is estimated that 30-50% of the human world population has been infected at some time with the parasite, while in some countries the infection rate could be over 60%.
Toxoplasmosis is often thought of as something you catch from cats, but it is actually found far wider in the environment. It can develop on raw meat and is also found in soil, and on fruit and vegetables that have not been washed. It can also be transmitted by drinking contaminated water or unpasteurised milk.
Symptoms of Toxoplasmosis
Because toxoplasmosis is rare its symptoms are sometimes mistaken for other commoner illness, such as distemper.
Symptoms can include
- Vomiting and diarrhoea
- Abdominal pain/swelling
- Jaundice (gums and whites of eyes become yellow)
- Inflammation of the tonsils
- Heart palpitations
- Inflammation of the eyes and/or rapid blinking
- Light sensitivity
- Tremors and seizures
- Lethargy (not wanting to move)
- Loss of muscle control/coordination
- Bodily weakness
- Full or partial paralysis
- Head tilt
- Shortness of breath/coughing
- Rapid panting
- Weight loss (usually accompanied by loss of appetite)
If your dog is suffering any of these symptoms and it is possible it has been in contact with the toxoplasmosis parasite, it is important you seek veterinary advice urgently.
Treatment for Toxoplasmosis
Though most dogs with a healthy immune system will fight off toxoplasmosis without any signs of being unwell, animals with a compromised immune system, puppies and particularly pregnant females can suffer serious problems from the condition.
Dogs that do become ill will need medication to stop the infection progressing, to support their immune system and destroy the parasite. In severe cases where the dog has become dehydrated, they may need to go on a drip to get fluids back into them. Recovering dogs should be kept away from other animals as much as possible.
Most dogs do recover completely from Toxoplasmosis, however some suffer long-term consequences. As part of the parasite's lifecycle it forms cysts in the brain which can cause neurological problems. There is some evidence in people that the parasite can cause lasting damage to the brain, causing changes in behaviour or serious conditions such as schizophrenia. Dogs infected by toxoplasmosis sometimes develop seizures as a result of the parasite's presence
Toxoplasmosis is extremely serious in a pregnant female. The parasite is passed from the mother to her unborn puppies and this often leads to them being stillborn, dying shortly after birth or suffering severe birth defects.
Toxoplasmosis is one of the most widespread parasite borne diseases and can be found in many places in the environment. While many people know of its transmission by cats, it is also in the ground and can be found in raw meat. While it may not be possible to completely avoid it, there are ways you can at least reduce the risk.
- Cat Poop - cat poop seems to be a gourmet dish to dogs and most will pick it up and munch it. If you have an indoor cat, aim to keep their litter tray clean and, if possible, out of reach of your dog. Cats entering your garden are harder to manage, but try to keep your dog away from areas cats may poop in.
- Raw Veg - the toxoplasmosis parasite can be found in soil and can be transmitted to a dog when they eat vegetables dug straight from the garden. A simple solution is to wash all vegetables thoroughly before giving them to your dog. There is no need to cook vegetables before feeding.
- Raw Meat - Raw or undercooked meat is seen as a key transmitter of toxoplasmosis in humans, and is also considered a risk in dogs. However, freezing raw meat kills the parasite and raw food sold specifically for dogs usually comes frozen. If you buy fresh meat to feed to your dog, freezing it will destroy the parasite, or you can always cook it.
- Raw Milk - Milk that has not been pasteurised can be infected by the toxoplasmosis parasite. Pasteurisation destroys the parasite and is one reason most commercial milk is sold pasteurised. Feeding only pasteurised milk is one way to avoid the parasite.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2021 Sophie Jackson