Cats are wonderful pets that will create many warm moments and loving memories for you and your children. Unfortunately, they will also create hundreds of pounds of dirty litter during their lifetime. Several types of parasites, bacteria, worms and infections can be transmitted to children, adults or other pets through exposure to litter or litter boxes. Risks are not necessarily high for most people, but young children are more vulnerable than are adults and older children to several of these health threats. Proper care and placement of litter boxes can help avoid problems.
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Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by the protozoan Toxoplasma parasite, which makes its home in the gastrointestinal system of infected animals and humans. Infected cats excrete oocysts—protozoan eggs encrusted in a cyst wall—with their feces. Stool can become infected after a 24-hour incubation period. Toxoplasmosis infection can cause flu-like symptoms, but can also cause infection of the brain (i.e., encephalitis) in people with compromised immune systems or in very young children.
Salmonella, Campylobacter and other species of bacteria can be transmitted in the stool of cats. Ingestion of the stool by young children, or transfer of fecal matter from the hand to the mouth, can cause diarrhea in people even when the infected cat doesn’t show any symptoms of illness.
Cutaneous Larval Migrans
Various species of hookworms are passed from infected cats into warm, moist, sandy soil where the larvae feed on bacteria and go through two molting stages before hatching. These larvae, once in the infective third stage, can penetrate the outer layer of even intact human skin. They travel under the skin, triggering irritation and inflammation. Though they live in the lymphatic and blood systems and lungs of the host animals, these larvae lack the proper enzymes to migrate beyond the lower layers of human skin. Children appear to be more vulnerable to this condition than adults.
Visceral (Body) and Ocular (Eye) Larval Migrans
Cats infected by various species of roundworms can potentially pass the parasites to humans. Eggs are passed by ingested fecal matter, and then hatch inside the body. Larvae travel through various internal organs and can sometimes find their way to the eyes or brain. Though rare, especially in nontropical regions, the disease can be serious and can cause blindness or severe neurological problems.
Litter Box Hygiene
Toxoplasmosis and larval migrans both have incubation periods of one to two days after being excreted by the cat; during this period the oocytes or larvae develop into their infectious stages. Scoop the litter box daily to minimize risk of exposure. Wash the litter box thoroughly with a diluted bleach or cleanser once a week. Another incentive to keep the litter box well cleaned is that cats with dirty litter boxes are more likely to find other, cleaner places to take care of their business. Use litter mats at the entrance/exit or around the box to help remove litter from the cat’s paws as she walks away from the litter box. Clean or sweep the mat and the surrounding area daily to minimize tracking of litter around the house.
Litter Box Placement
Young children are curious and should not have access to the litter box. Place the litter box out of their reach. You can place the box beyond a child gate, behind a closed door that has a built-in pet door or up on a table and out of reach of tiny hands. Likewise, keep the box out of reach of dogs that may get into the litter and then spread it through the house.
Children and Litter Box Duties
Young children are at greater risk than others for infection from cat waste, and are generally less responsible about attending daily and properly to the litter box and the surrounding area. Do not assign this responsibility to younger children. Have an adult or teenager tend to litter duty.