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Is it serious? Cats, toxoplasmosis, and microchipping

cats [1]

One of the Wellington City Council’s justifications for its proposed anti-cat bylaw [2] is the threat of toxoplasmosis. The council tells us it’s a disease “which can have serious health implications for humans, especially pregnant women and people with impaired immunity. New Zealand has high rates of toxoplasmosis, with more than 40% of the population infected.” Oh dear – so what’s it doing about this raging epidemic?

Given the widespread nature of the health risks and the imminent threat to the nation’s capital, I thought it best to consult the best medical mind on the planet – Google. Which took me to the US Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, the hero of many a great pandemic movie. Here’s what they had to say [3] about toxoplasmosis:

A single-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii causes a disease known as toxoplasmosis. While the parasite is found throughout the world, more than 60 million people in the United States may be infected with the Toxoplasma parasite. Of those who are infected, very few have symptoms because a healthy person’s immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness. However, pregnant women and individuals who have compromised immune systems should be cautious.

So the disease is very widespread throughout the world, and practically everyone who has it exhibits no symptoms as their immune system fights it off … that doesn’t exactly sound like the public health emergency being proclaimed by the Wellington City Council. But still, it’s reasonable to see what action can be taken … after all, who wants a disease, even if most people don’t even notice they’ve had it?

As it turns out, the cats that are the Council’s target aren’t even the top of the CDC’s list for sources of toxoplasmosis:

– Eating undercooked, contaminated meat (especially pork, lamb, and venison).

– Accidental ingestion of undercooked, contaminated meat after handling it and not washing hands thoroughly (Toxoplasma cannot be absorbed through intact skin).

– Eating food that was contaminated by knives, utensils, cutting boards and other foods that have had contact with raw, contaminated meat.

– Drinking water contaminated with Toxoplasma gondii.

– Accidentally swallowing the parasite through contact with cat feces that contain Toxoplasma.

Both the CDC and every reputable medical source that Google took me to agree – you’re far more likely to catch toxoplasmosis from contaminated meat than from your moggy. Some sources suggest that more than 80% of infections come from the food chain, for the simple reason that your cat – even if infected – will only shed the virus in its feces for a week or two in its entire life. And given New Zealand’s dire record of food safety – with more than 950 cases of salmonella resulting in 110 hospital admissions in 2014 alone – the odds from contaminated meat may well be higher for Kiwis. Even so, toxoplasmosis doesn’t even figure in the New Zealand Public Health Surveillance Report [4] from the Ministry for Primary Industries, presumably because the consequences of the disease are so minor for the vast majority of people.

Still, it was worth investigating further, so I called the Ministry of Health, the people who genuinely care about the spread of disease in NZ. After being referred around a few times, I found a helpful chap who said that toxoplasmosis wasn’t an area of focus for the Ministry. When I asked whether microchipping cats would help reduce the disease, he just laughed.

As did Google. No amount of searching found a single study – reputable or otherwise – that showed a link between cat microchipping and reduced rates of toxoplasmosis in the population, a correlation that appears to exist only in the imaginings of Councillor Simon Woolf, who proposed compulsory microchipping.

Like so much of what the Wellington City Council gets up to these days, the imminent threat of toxoplasmosis seems to exist solely within the reality distortion field that glows over the council table. There’s no public health emergency and no research that backs their chosen solution – but there’s a very clear sense that the Council wants to push ahead with this pointless and expensive policy anyway. We can but shake our heads in wonder … and vote accordingly.