You may want to start washing your hands after petting fluffy, because new estimates indicate that 350,000 people a year in the United Kingdom become infected with toxoplasmosis.
The disease is spread by direct contact with cats, or eating contaminated food, according to a report by the Food Standards Agency.
Only about one in 10 of the people who have become infected with toxoplasmosis have symptoms.
“The biggest threat is to pregnant women and those who are immuno-compromised, which we have known for some time,” British Veterinary Association Past President and veterinary surgeon Harvey Locke told BBC. “It is useful to reiterate that they should take extra care but there is no need for people to get rid of their pet cats or choose not to have cats as pets.”
Toxoplasmosis can cause flu-like symptoms, and can cause serious complications in people with weakened immune systems.
In pregnant women, it can result in the baby being born blind or with brain damage, according to the report.
Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite in the disease, can get into the food chain through cat feces, causing contamination of soil, water, and plants.
Humans catch the infection by eating undercooked meat from animals that harbor toxoplasma or from coming into contact with cat liter or contaminated soil.
The disease works similar to chicken pox, in that once a person becomes infected, they are immune from further infection for life.
In order to avoid infection, you should be wearing gloves when gardening or changing your cat’s litter box.
Also, remember to wash fruits and vegetables before eating, and cook meat thoroughly, according to the Food Standards Agency.
There is still no vaccine for cats to keep them from getting infected with toxoplasma, but the agency said that once one becomes available “this may have a significant effect on the burden of human disease.”
“This report shows that there is more work to be done to estimate how big an issue toxoplasmosis is for the general population,” Sarah O’Brien, Chair of the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food, said in a statement. “I think we understand better the risks involved for those who are pregnant or have a weakened immune system which is why the FSA issues specific advice for these groups.”
She said there is still no evidence to suggest that people should change their eating habits, and that the FSA is right to say that most of the population can continue to enjoy meats like lamb and beef cooked rare.”