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Don't throw out the cat with the litter pan

Published Sep. 15, 1998|Updated Sep. 13, 2005

Question: Please tell me what toxoplasmosis is. My doctor told me to avoid touching my cat or changing the litter pan because I am pregnant and this disease comes from cats and can harm my baby. However, before I do something as extreme as giving up my cat, who is a member of my family, I would like to know more about this disease from a vet. My cat never goes outside, is 6 years old and is perfectly healthy. A friend who raises cats says I shouldn't be concerned, just to let my husband change the litter pan daily. Help! _ S.T., Oldsmar

Answer: Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by a microscopic parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. Humans can be exposed to this organism by handling or eating raw or rare meat, unwashed fruits and vegetables or by coming in contact with the feces of infected cats (outdoors while gardening, for example). Cats often will become infected with toxoplasmosis by eating mice or birds that harbor the parasite. With indoor cats, the source of the organism most often is uncooked meat.

When a cat is initially infected with T. gondii, it may excrete millions of oocysts (a form of egg) in its stool every day. These oocysts become infectious to humans after one or two days. Most cats are extremely fastidious and do not allow feces to stay on their hair for any length of time. As a result, it is unlikely to become infected from direct contact with the cat.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine when or if a cat's feces are infectious to humans and other mammals, because cats may exhibit no signs of illness while passing the oocysts. In pregnant women, acute infection with this parasite can lead to birth defects, hearing loss or death of the developing infant.

Any potential problems with toxoplasmosis from your cat can be prevented by following a few simple guidelines. First, the cat litter should be changed daily (preferably by another member of the family) and disposed of immediately. Second, cats should not be fed uncooked meat or allowed to stalk prey. Lastly, not all pregnant women are at risk for toxoplasmosis. A serologic test is available through your physician to determine if you have had prior exposure to this organism and are immune to it. There is absolutely no reason to give up your cat. _ Richard Wilkes, DVM, Bay Moorings Animal Hospital, St. Petersburg

Canine intelligence

Question: I have a toy poodle, and my husband has a German shepherd. My husband says common sense tells him that his dog is a lot more intelligent than my dog because of the difference in brain size. Is this true? _ K.N., Bradenton.

Answer: Brain size doesn't relate to intelligence in dogs any more than it does in humans. Poodles are considered one of the more intelligent breeds of dog, and two of the varieties (toy and miniature) are quite small, indeed. It is possible that your husband's German shepherd is exceptionally bright and may be smarter than your poodle, but this would be an individual, not a size, difference.

Intelligence in dogs is a very subjective matter, depending on what we define as clever. Is learning to sit a sign of superior intelligence or is learning to forage in garbage cans for food? The latter ensures survival, the former demonstrates how well a dog follows commands; yet many of us consider a dog sitting on command smart. Whatever way we choose to measure canine intelligence, it is not the size of the brain but what's inside the brain that counts. _ Gillian Irving, DVM, Diplomate ACVIM (neurology), Tampa Bay Veterinary Specialists, Largo

Karen Ann Wilson is a certified veterinary technician. Please send questions to Ask a Vet, Pinellas Animal Foundation, P.O. Box 47771, St. Petersburg, FL 33743-7771. Because of the volume of mail, questions can be answered only in this column.

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