Researchers have shown through a study that domestic cats could be playing a role in spread of the potentially deadly Toxoplasma gondii parasite to wildlife and how healthy ecosystems could protect against such type of pathogens.
The new study by UBC researchers examined 45,079 cases of toxoplasmosis in wild mammals—a disease that has been linked to nervous system disorders, cancers and other debilitating chronic conditions—using data from 202 global studies. Findings indicate that wildlife living near dense urban areas were more likely to be infected.
Scientists say that the free-roaming domestic cats whether pets or feral cats are the most likely cause of these infections. The discovery is significant because by simply limiting free roaming of cats, we can reduce the impact of Toxoplasma on wildlife.
One infected cat can excrete as many as 500 million Toxoplasma oocysts (or eggs) in just two weeks. The oocysts can then live for years in soil and water with the potential to infect any bird or mammal, including humans. Toxoplasmosis is particularly dangerous for pregnant people.
If an animal is healthy, the parasite remains dormant and rarely causes direct harm. However, if an animal’s immune system is compromised, the parasite can trigger illness and potentially death.
The study also highlights the way healthy forests, streams and other ecosystems can filter out dangerous pathogens like Toxoplasma..
Research results like these remind us that all ecosystems, forested or other, are intrinsically linked.
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.