A parasite found in cat poop is way more widespread than previously thought, researchers have found.
Scientists at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center discovered that cat feces contains an infectious parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii. With felines depositing about 2.6 billion pounds of waste into the environment each year, the parasite's eggs, or oocysts, are finding their way into soil, sandboxes, and playgrounds, according to LiveScience.com.
Analyzing soil samples from California, China, Brazil, Panama, and Poland, researchers Dr. E. Fuller Torrey and Dr. Robert H. Yolken found that a square foot of soil can contain as many as 434 oocysts.
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"It may be a much bigger problem than we realize," Torrey, a psychiatrist who heads the Stanley Medical Research Institute in Chevy Chase, Md., told NBC News
. "It should give you pause before you put your child in a public sandbox."
It takes just a single oocyst to cause a full-on infection, Torrey said, which is alarming if you consider that the dirt under a gardener's fingernails could play host to some 100 oocysts. An infection could prove a health risk for people with compromised immune systems. The oocysts could also pose a serious threat to pregnant women, leading to congenital defects in the baby, like deafness, eye damage, and mental retardation.
Toxoplasma parasites are also linked to schizophrenia, depression, suicidal behavior, and lower school achievement in children, LiveScience.com reported.
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Cat owners and the general population alike should take precautions, scientists said. Gardeners should wear gloves, pregnant women should avoid changing kitty litter, and people should try and stay away from feral cats.
"None of us are saying cats shouldn't be pets," Torrey told LiveScience, but "there are some downsides to all pets, and some downsides to cats we should be aware of."
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