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Beware of Harmful Parasites Lurking in Cats’ Poop

Update Date: Jul 10, 2013 10:29 AM EDT

Studies have found evidence that owning a pet can reduce one's risk of heart disease, lower one's stress levels and improve quality of life. Regardless of the level of physical activity spent with a pet, since dogs require more of it, the fact that these animals are companions help relieve every day stress. However, as cute as these pets might be, owners have be to aware of the potential health risks involved especially if the pets get infected or sick. In a new review, researchers remind cat owners of the potentially dangerous parasites that reside in the feces of these adorable felines, especially those that live outdoors.

Before the review was published, researchers knew that cat pop could be a threat to human health. Some cats could be the host of a parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii (T.gondii). When cats poop, the parasite comes out as embryonic T.gondii, oocysts. Researchers have studied the threat of oocysts for humans and found a link between exposure to this parasite and mental health issues, such as schizophrenia. Other studies have found that oocysts could be tied to hindering neurological development in school children. On top of that, the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that oocysts are a threat to newborns and people with poor immune systems. Oocysts are hard to remove and the parasite can reside in a human for years before any symptoms start to show.

Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a research psychiatrist and Dr. Robert Yolken, a pediatric infectious disease specialist worked together to study the role of animals in relation to infectious diseases. In their review, they reported that the cat population has been growing, which means that these parasites could also be growing. For every one million cats in the U.S. that relieve themselves every day, there are nearly 50 million oocysts apiece.

"This is a public health problem that bears more scrutiny," Torrey stated according to NPR. "We're walking a tight line between alarming people and failing to point out obvious health problems that need to be paid attention to."

"The association [between parasites and health issues] has been discussed, but it has not been completely accepted by everyone," added Dr. William Schaffner reported by NBC News. Schaffner is the chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. "If people were convinced of that, we would have acted on it."

Even though researchers have not found a cause and effect relationship between these parasites and the mental health threat, the review, as well as other experts remind people that cat feces can be found more frequently in locations where people are active. There are around 20 to 80 million homeless cats, according to the Cat Protection Policy at the Humane Society, and these cats might defecate frequently in children's sand boxes at public playgrounds and in gardens. Although indoor cats are less likely to be infected, being aware of where oocysts might be lurking within your vicinity could be an important preventative step to take. 

The review was published in the Trends in Parasitology

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