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Cats, toxoplasmosis, and more cats

Where are you when we need you, Bob Barker?



The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently issued a report that kitchen gardens and community gardens may be open to a cat-borne disease that can be devastating, especially to children. To wit: "Toxoplasmosis, caused by the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii, is one of the most common parasitic infections of man and other warm-blooded animals. It has been found worldwide from Alaska to Australia. Nearly one-third of humanity has been exposed to this parasite. In most adults it does not cause serious illness, but it can cause blindness and mental retardation in congenitally infected children and devastating disease in immunocompromised individuals."

USDA goes on to say the socioeconomic impact of toxoplasmosis in human suffering and the costs of caring for sick children—especially those with mental retardation and blindness—are enormous. (The testing of all pregnant women for T. gondii infection is compulsory in some European countries, including France and Austria.)

The only physical way anyone can try to keep out of the way of cat–vectored toxoplasmosisis is to wear tight gloves while gardening. After harvesting, ALL vegetables should be washed thoroughly before eating, as they may have been contaminated with cat feces. When working in the garden, it's better to curb the urge to eat a fresh radish until it's been washed.

According to the latest research of cat populations world-wide there are 76,430,000 in the US, while the Center for Disease Control (CDC), reports the two main diseases that cat-owners should be wary of are toxoplasmosis and rabies. Though most cats become immune to toxoplasmosisis, as carriers, it poses significant health risks to pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems. Currently, more than 60 million Americans carry the disease. Due, in part, to their close contact with wild animals and humans, said CDC, rabies in cats is on the rise, reported at three times the rate of rabid dogs.

Then there's the impact of outdoor and feral cats on indigenous wildlife. According to research conducted by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, cats are responsible for the deaths of 1.4 billions to 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 billion to 20.7 billion mammals every year.

The study, published recently in the journal Nature Communications, highlighted the impact that both feral and family cats have on wildlife populations in the United States.

While feral, un-owned cats are responsible for the majority of small bird and mammal deaths, the study found previous wildlife mortality estimates to be far too low. Despite these harmful effects, policies for management of free-ranging cat populations and regulation of pet ownership behaviours are dictated by animal welfare issues rather than ecological impacts.

Dr. Peter Marra, research scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and co-author of the study, told ABC News, "We think there are 15 to 20 billion adult land birds in the U.S. If we are suggesting 2.3 billion are killed annually, that means 1 in 10 birds are killed by cats every year."

The findings were extrapolated from various studies conducted in the U.S. and Europe to determine the number of cats in the U.S.—which include up to 80 million un-owned cats—and other factors used to approximate how many kitty-caused killings are committed.

A cat owner in Athens, Ga., thought she knew her cat, Booker T, but when scientists put a little camera on the kitty, it captured carnage.

"He's the cutest little serial killer you will ever meet," the woman told a newsman.

In addition to the sheer volume of wildlife deaths occurring annually by the claws and jaws of felines, there are the health concerns that cat owners should take into account.

The Humane Society of the United States stands up for all animals—a challenge when the animals it protects come into conflict—as with predation of outdoor cats on wildlife. HSUS is calling on all cat households to please "keep pet cats indoors, get cats spayed or neutered, and keep collars with visible ID on them at all times."

These simple actions will protect wildlife by reducing the number of cats outdoors, decreasing the overall population of community cats, and helping reunite lost cats with their families. Here are some things you can do if you want to protect all animals:

• Support programs that work to manage community cat populations.

• Subsidize the cost of spaying or neutering for cat owners who cannot afford it.

• Support your local wildlife rehabilitation facility to help injured birds and other animals.

• Get involved with a local effort to boost indoor cat programs and promote collars and visible ID.

• Make your backyard safer for wildlife by using humane deterrents to keep outdoor cats out of your yard.

• Take the pledge and say "YES" to protecting both cats and wildlife.

Although many cats enjoy being outside, it's a myth that going outside is a requirement for feline happiness. Playing regularly with cats easily satisfies their stalking instinct, keeps them stimulated, and provides the exercise they needs to stay healthy and happy. Which reminds me of a cat owner I met in Sisters not too long ago, who said, "Oh, I love my cats too much to let them go outside."

Based on all the wildlife conservation research, it is obvious we are long past the time for effective and humane cat control and management at the city, county, state and federal levels.

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