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Cats are spreading the Toxoplasma parasite in urban areas

In a recent study from the University of British Columbia, researchers found that domestic cats are driving the spread of a potentially deadly parasite to wildlife in urban areas. 

The Toxoplasma gondii parasite is found worldwide. The disease caused by the parasite, toxoplasmosis, has been linked to cancer, nervous system disorders, and other debilitating conditions.

The parasite infects basically all warm-blooded animals, but domestic cats and other felids are the only hosts that can facilitate sexual reproduction.

The UBC study is the first to investigate the spread of Toxoplasma among many wildlife species on a global scale. According to the researchers, their results demonstrate how healthy ecosystems can protect against these types of pathogens.

Led by Dr. Amy Wilson, the team investigated 45,079 cases of toxoplasmosis in wild mammals using data from 202 global studies. The analysis revealed that wildlife living near dense urban areas were more likely to be infected.

“As increasing human densities are associated with increased densities of domestic cats, our study suggests that free-roaming domestic cats – whether pets or feral cats – are the most likely cause of these infections,” said Dr. Wilson.

“This finding is significant because by simply limiting free roaming of cats, we can reduce the impact of Toxoplasma on wildlife.”

The experts report that one infected cat can excrete as many as 500 million Toxoplasma eggs in just two weeks. These eggs can persist for years in water and soil, maintaining the ability to infect humans and other mammals.  

While the parasite usually remains dormant and harmless, it can cause serious illness and even death in an animal with a compromised immune system.

Dr. Wilson said the study highlights the way healthy forests, streams and other ecosystems can filter out dangerous pathogens like Toxoplasma.

“We know that when wetlands are destroyed or streams are restricted, we are more likely to experience runoff that carries more pathogens into the waters where wild animals drink or live,”said Dr. Wilson. And when their habitats are healthy, wildlife thrives and tends to be more disease-resistant.”

“There is a growing recognition among forest science professionals and other groups that protecting biodiversity and the ecosystems it supports is an efficient and economical approach to reducing disease transfer between wildlife, domestic animals and humans. Conservation is really preventative medicine in action.”

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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