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Toxoplasmosis – be alert but not alarmed

T. gondii, the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, is spread widely through the human and animal population but domestic cats have a unique role in it’s life-cycle. While other animals can carry T. gondii, it is only in the gut of domestic cats that it can reproduce. The parasite is excreted into the environment in the faeces of the cat.

Fortunately, the immune systems of most humans and animals are robust enough to suppress the infection so that it causes no harm.

It is in people and animals with weakened immune systems and pregnant women that it become a danger.

Toxoplasmosis in cats

Most cats infected with T. gondii show no signs of disease. However, when the cat’s immune system is suppressed, including young kittens and cats with feline leukemia virus or feline immunodeficiency virus, full-blown toxoplasmosis may occur.

Kittens born to queens infected with T. gondii in the womb can become infected via the placenta or via suckling. Illness is common and the severity varies with the stage of gestation at the time of infection.

The most common symptoms of toxoplasmosis in cats include fever, loss of appetite, and lethargy. Treatment is by a course of antibiotics and the outcome depends on how soon treatment was started and which organs in the cats are affected.

Toxoplasmosis in people

Most people carrying T. gondii will experience no symptoms but there are two serious exceptions. People undergoing treatment for cancer or HIV or other treatments that suppress their immune systems are at risk of serious infection. This is most usually detected by a blood test.

Toxoplasmosis in pregnant women is particularly dangerous. Getting toxoplasmosis shortly before or during pregnancy can pass the parasite through the placenta to the baby. This increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth or serious health problems including vision problems, blindness, developmental delays and learning difficulties.

Precautions

Cat owners, or people whose garden is frequented by cats, can safeguard themselves and their families by:

  • wearing gloves and washing hands after gardening
  • emptying and washing litter trays frequently
  • washing hands after handling litter trays and utensils
  • not allowing cats on food preparation surfaces
  • covering children’s sandboxes

People without cats can ingest T, gondii by eating raw meat, eating unwashed fruit or vegetables or by drinking unpasteurised milk.

It is estimated that one in three people in the world have been, or are carrying, T. gondii but with a few precautions, you and your family will likely be unaffected.

You can find more about Toxoplasmosis in this comprehensive article.

Treat your cat – plant catnip

Spring is here and the warming weather is the ideal time to give your cat a treat by planting catnip.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is cheap, readily available and easy to grow from seeds or seedlings. It is sometimes found under different names including cats wort, cat wort, or cat mint. You can grow it indoors or in the garden and it can be dried and stored over winter and still retain it’s attractive properties.

Kittens show no reaction to catnip and about one third of cats never develop an interest. But even if that is the case with your cat you will still have a pleasant, robust plant that is effective in repelling insects including cockroaches and mosquitoes.

However, cats that like it, generally love it. They will rub themselves happily in the plant, or chew on the leaves. After ten or fifteen minutes they will then wander off, relaxed and satisfied.

Benefits

As well as being a pleasant addition to their environment, you can make creative use of catnip in managing your cat.

By controlling access you can extract some extra benefits such as:

  • providing enrichment for an indoor cat by periodically hiding it around the house or in a toy
  • introducing them to a new toy (like that expensive cat wheel you just bought) by placing catnip on or around it
  • de-stressing them in advance of some potentially stressful event like being in a vehicle, going to the vet or being bathed
  • re-igniting their interest in the old cat scratch pole and away from your new leather sofa
  • gently introducing them to a new person or location.

If this sounds good but you lack the space or the green thumb, then you can buy preparations like sprays or the dried herb that have the same effect from pet stores and online.

Downsides

There are few downsides to catnip. It has been used in traditional herbal remedies for humans for centuries and its effects are well studied. The active ingredient, nepetalactone, is not addictive and causes no harm or long-term behaviour changes. There are rare reports of cats getting tummy upsets from over-eating the plant and of males becoming aggressive, possibly because the active ingredient mimics the pheromones involved in mating. In either case, just discontinue the use and chat to your vet.

Finally, be thoughtful where you put your plant. An over-enthusiastic cat may cause cat or plant a harmful fall if placed in a high location such as a window sill or balcony.

Get planting!

If you want to get more deeply into the catnip story go to the all about catnip page on the Cat World website.

Osteoarthritis – is your cat suffering in silence?

Osteoarthritis is among the diseases of ageing that we share with our cats.

It occurs when the cartilage padding in our joints wears away causing the bones to rub against each other. For us, the resulting pain is enough to cause us to get attention but it is in the nature of cats to try to avoid displays of discomfort.

The disease should be looked for in any cat of seven years or older. It is estimated that over three-quarters of cats over 10 years will experience it.

It appears most commonly in the elbows and hips, and less commonly in shoulders and ankles and in the backbone and sternum.

Diagnosis

Diagnosing osteoarthritis can be difficult in a single visit even for experienced vets aided by x-rays.

The clues to whether your older cats is affected by osteoarthritis are often in their general condition and behaviour:

  • They may lose their appetite and lose weight.
  • You may notice mood changes – formerly happy cats may become depressed and withdrawn and show poor grooming habits.
  • You may notice stiffness in their legs, especially after sleeping or resting.
  • They may start to appear lame or, more likely, you will notice that they will be be reluctant to jump or will make much shorter jumps.
  • They start missing the litter tray.
  • Their claws may become longer due to lack of use.

Taking careful note of these symptoms will help you help your vet reach a diagnosis.

Treatment

Osteoarthritis in cats cannot be cured and the treatment options are limited.  Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as Metacam) can be used to manage the pain. Weight loss for overweight cats may reduce the stress on joints. Some dietary supplements and other treatments have been claimed to provide relief in some cases and your vet will advise you.

Beyond that, most responses involve making the cat’s environment more convenient and comfortable. You can help them live with osteoarthritis by:

  • making sure they don’t have to go up or down stairs to access food, water, sleeping quarters or litter trays
  • providing litter trays with one lower side to make entry and leaving easier
  • raising food and water bowls
  • providing softer bedding
  • providing ramps to their resting places such as a favourite couch or bed.

Sadly, this disease is a progressive, lifelong process. However, working with your vet you can improve your cat’s quality of life greatly in her golden years.

Tooth resorption in cats

Tooth resorption is a very common and painful condition that affects an estimated 20-60 percent of cats – but can easily go unnoticed.

The cause is unknown, but seems to be that cells called osteoclasts that naturally eat up and remove baby teeth, persist long after they are needed in some cats.

There may be various levels of resorption in affected teeth, and the destruction can occur at varying speeds until it progresses to a point at which it must be addressed. The dentin in a single tooth (or several simultaneously) erodes and eventually becomes irreparably destroyed. Over time, all areas of an affected tooth, from root to crown, may become involved.

Within each of a cat’s teeth is a chamber (root canal) that contains tissue made up of blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, and nerves. This tissue, which communicates with the rest of the animal’s body, is surrounded by a bony substance called dentin, which accounts for the bulk of the tooth’s structure.

In this condition, the dentin in a tooth, or several teeth, erodes and eventually becomes irreparably destroyed. Over time, all areas of an affected tooth, from root to crown, may become involved.

Detecting resorption

Dental pain in all animals is almost always hidden from view, so that they don’t appear vulnerable or weak. Sudden loss of appetite might occur if the crown were to break off from a single tooth. In that case, the cat could be off its food for a significant amount of time, 24 to 72 hours, say, but in general, the condition has to get to an extreme level before the cat stops eating.

One of the first signs would be that the cat starts swallowing its food without chewing it or that it suddenly develops a preference for soft food.

A cat may clearly indicate that it is experiencing excruciating pain when it bites down on an affected tooth or if the tooth is touched by a veterinarian’s probing fingers or examining tool. However, chronic toothaches are not among the condition’s most usual clinical signs.

A more reliable indicator is a cat’s behaviour while eating. The owner may notice that it’s appetite appears to be normal but that it tilts its head and tries to chew on just one side of its mouth. If it is eating kibble, it may try to swallow it without chewing, or the food may fall out of its mouth.

Diagnosis and treatment

The best way of confirming the suspected presence of the condition is with a trip to the vet who can usually diagnose the condition with a visual examination or sometimes an x-ray. A good precaution is to have your cat’s teeth examined annually.

Unfortunately complete extraction of all affected teeth is the only treatment. Drastic as this sounds, it should not cause major concern for the patient. Cats can cope very well with no teeth at all!

Is there a wheel in your cat’s future?

Could be!

As more cat owners are choosing, or being compelled to by local government by-laws, to keep their cats contained, an exercise wheel could be in your cat’s life.

Models that allow the cat to enter and exit from either side seem to suit most cats best.  Energetic breeds such as Bengals, Russian Blues, Abyssinians and Siamese seem to take to them well.

With some cats you may need to be patient and encourage their interest with treats or other toys.  Once accepted, exercise wheels are a safe and effective way to keep them fit, active and entertained – and often yourself amused.

On the negative side, exercise wheels can be expensive, from several hundred dollars up to $500 or more in Australia.  Our team at Feline Health Research have found that, while many cats learn to love them, in some instances, cats may choose to ignore them altogether.  Forever!

If you have DIY skills and basic tools, there are many videos demonstrating how you are able to make an execise wheel from common materials for a fraction of the cost of a ready-made model.

A no-cost option if you already have a treadmill, is to encourage your cat to use that, like these pretty Burmese.

Whether you prefer the calm, meditative action of our two Silver Bengals or something a bit more frantic and hilarious, searching ‘cat exercise wheel‘ on Youtube will provide some great enterainment and a better idea whether it is a solution for you and your cat.

And you can put all of that wasted time down to research!

Heartworm in cats

Dog owners are rightly concerned about heartworm infections. Heartworm is common throughout Australia and especially in hot and humid areas. Infection can cause serious illness and death in dogs.

But what about cats?

The same worm (Dirofilaria immitis) that infects dogs can also be transmitted to cats and other animals including foxes and ferrets. Transmission is by mosquito bite so your cat does not need to come into direct contact with an infected animal to catch it.

Fortunately, heartworm infection is much less serious in cats.

Cats’ immune systems seem to be better adapted to defeating heartworm. In most cases the infection will disappear without the cat showing symptoms.

In the rare occurrence that an infection takes hold, the symptoms can include vomiting of blood or food, diarrhoea, coughing and breathing difficulties. It is easy to confuse these symptoms with other serious conditions such as asthma so trip to the vet is called for if they appear.

Unlike dogs, there is no widely accepted treatment for heartworm in infected cats.

So what should you do?

Studies have shown that heartworm In cats is most common in areas that have high rates of infection in dogs. Also global warming is leading to the appearance of increasing numbers of mosquitoes that were previously uncommon in southern states. If you live in such an area it may be worth seeking out a preventative that includes heartworm protection along with that for fleas and intestinal worms.

You can read Feline Heartworm in Clinical Settings in a High Canine Prevalence Area .

A number of veterinary practices can also be found via your search engine that will provide facts and advice – and you can always raise the issue with your own vet on your next visit.

Feline health grants for 2022

The August 2022 round of Feline Health Research Fund Grant applications is now closed.

There was a record number of applications including studies of toxoplasmosis, kidney disease and cat behaviour from a variety of Australian Universities.

‘It is pleasing to see such a lot of quality feline health research being undertaken in Australia,’ said Fund Secretary Helen Radoslovich.

‘Of course it means lots of extra work for the Fund’s Trustees and our evaluators but it is work we are happy to undertake.

‘A final decision will take several months but we anticipate being able to advise applicants of the outcome by early 2023.

‘Grants are made possible by donations from cat lovers across Australia. If you are able to support us, even in a small way, please visit our donations page’, she said.

The Fund supports relevant research from scientists, veterinarians and post-graduate students from Australian universities and research institutes.

Here is a list of a list of previously funded projects but applicants were asked to consider research projects relating to improved or preventative health care for cats such as:

arthritis
asthma
behavioural problems
breast cancer
diabetes
eye problems
feline infectious peritonitis
fertility

HCM
hyperthyroidism
immunisation protocols.
kidney, heart and liver failure
lymphosarcoma
pyometra
tooth and gum disease
skin conditions

Cross-species genome research

Recent advances in genome science has demonstrated significant genetic similarity between species. Funds may be allocated to researchers who are engaged in investigating diseases of humans or other animal species that are relevant to cats.

An end to cat allergies?

If you are one of the one in seven who suffer sneezing, itchy eyes and other symptoms from even the slightest contact with cats, take heart!  Recent genetic research promises a way to block the genes that cause one of the major cat allergens.

The allergic responses are caused by a protein that cats secrete through their salivary and skin glands. When they clean themselves, the allergen is spread over their fur. It can become airborne when their coat dries and be around in the cat’s dander, or dried skin flakes. This explains why sensitive people can get symptoms just by being in the same room.

CRISPR is a gene-editing technology that enables scientists to add or remove bits of an organism’s DNA. It’s been at the forefront of developments that have revolutionised agriculture and human medicine.

Researchers in a US company are working towards using CRISPR to remove the bits of the DNA that give rise to the allergy-causing protein. This will pave the way to breed cats that produce little or none of the offending protein. Hypo-allergenic cats!

A lot of testing is still needed to be sure that removing the ability to produce this protein doesn’t deprive the cat of the ability to produce something that is important to its health. By comparing a range of domestic and wild cat breeds it was found that the amount of the protein in each cat varied very widely so this protein doesn’t seem essential for cat health.

The scientists involved are careful in saying that there is still some distance to go before the modified DNA is introduced into a live breeding program.

In the meantime, there is the prospect of relief from a different approach. One company is developing a vaccine to train a cat’s immune system to reduce the levels of the protein and another has a line of allergen-reducing cat food.

These are good news and might provide some releif in the short-term.  Hypo-allegenic cats may be some years away yet.

If you would like to read more, check out this article in Gizmodo.

Can my cat make me sick?

We love our cats! Around 4.9 million domestic cats share their lives with Australian families at last count. They are affectionate, entertaining and curious. Research has shown conclusively that their presence in our lives makes us happier and more emotionally healthy.
Unfortunately cats can carry germs that can affect humans, especially the pregnant, the very young and those with chronic disease. Thankfully, the illnesses are relatively minor and the risk of catching them from your cat can can be minimised with a few simple precautions.
Toxmoplasma gondi is a parasite that lives in the gut of cats and can be transmitted to other warm-blooded creatures, including people. The eggs are present in the poo from cats, in litter trays and in gardens where cats do their business. Symptoms can be like a mild flu but pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems are at much greater risk and should take extra precautions. Recent studies are now suggesting the possiblity of a link with the development of schizophrenia-like symptoms and suicide later in life.
Bartonella henselae (commonly known as cat-scratch disease) lives in the blood cells of cats. If you are bitten or scratched the bacteria can get into your system and cause flu-like symptoms. Cat scratch disease typically subsides without any treatment, usually within 2 to 4 months and the symptoms can be treated with common fever reducing drugs and pain killers. More severe reactions may cause swelling in the lymph nodes and may require antibiotics and draining of the lymph nodes by a doctor.
Ringworm is a fungal infection that is transmitted by direct contact between pets and people via fungal spores on the cat’s fur.  Treatment is by a topical wash, ointment, tablets, or a combination of all three. It is highly contagious and precautions include vacuuming up loose fur and treating the cat’s bedding.  It is easily treated in people by applying an ointment avaialble from your pharmacy.
 

The good news is…

Protecting yourself and your family from these and other cat-borne infections is relatively straightforward and quite familiar to us in these Covid times.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water or hand-sanitiser after handling cats food and water dishes, litterboxes, toys or cat saliva before you eat or drink.
  • Wear gloves or wash your hands after working in gardens that cats use.
  • Keep cats away from food preparation areas.
  • If you are bitten or scratched by a cat, no matter how minor the wound, wash it with warm soapy water immediately. If the wound is serious, if it becomes red or swollen or if it is more than five years since your last tetanus shot, seek medical attention.

These are three of the most common diseases that our cat friends can share with us but, with the precautions above, the chance of infection from any of these is very low.

If you would like to find out more, check out Toxoplasmosis on the Australian Government Department of Health website, Cat-scratch disease on the SA Health website and the Cat Protection Society of NSW Ringworm Factsheet.

Cat Health Grants are now available

If you are looking for a partner to fund your research into cat health, we may be what you need.

The Feline Health Research Fund makes grants of up to $10,000 from it’s pool of  donations from cat lovers, professionals and the industry to fund quality Australian research into issues affecting the health, wellbeing and longevity of domestic cats.

We are encouraging applications from a range of disciplines into a wide range of health issues for domestic cats.

For more information please go to the Applying for a Grant page on our website.  There you can download the Small Grants Application Form, read the Grant FAQs and check out details of previously funded projects.

The window for this grant round opens on the 1st of August and closes at 5pm on the 31st of August, 2022.

If you have questions after reading the website information, please email the Secretary, Feline Health Research Fund.

The second part of our cat pregnancy series, on cat birthing and aftercare, will be published next week.

Please feel free to forward this email to associates and colleagues with an interest in feline health research.