Cats May Prove Deadly to Organ Transplant Recipients

Cats May Prove Deadly to Organ Transplant Recipients


When Miller Nance received his new heart, he had no idea he would have to give away his beloved cat, Cleavon. Although the big, black Persian cat, with his watery, yellow eyes and flattened face looked harmless enough, he might have been carrying a dangerous parasite that could have life-threatening consequences to his owner. The parasite, Toxoplasma gondii can cause a serious infection known as toxoplasmosis, which for the severely immunosuppressed could lead to death.

“The doctors told me it would be best to get rid of Cleavon,” explained Nance. “They told me cats may prove deadly to organ transplant recipients and I just couldn’t take the chance.”

A recent study has brought Toxoplasma gondii to the world’s attention, citing its ability to rewire the brain of mice and rats, leaving them drawn to cat urine and unafraid of their worst enemy. Yet, for years, pregnant women have been told not to touch cats or their litter boxes for fear of toxoplasmosis being transmitted to their unborn babies. Although the mother may have no symptoms to alert her of an infection, the baby could contract the infection and eventually suffer from blindness or retardation. Cats are also a big source of concern in the world for those with suppressed immune systems, such as HIV patients and recipients of solid organ transplants.

Today in the United States, over 60 million adults and children carry the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In those with healthy immune systems, it probably will never turn into a serious illness, but for those with compromised immune systems, becoming infected by this parasite can cause severe results. For organ transplant recipients, whose immune systems are deliberately suppressed to avoid rejection of the new organ, having toxoplasmosis could reactive a more chronic infection leading to life-threatening circumstances or death.

When Miller Nance was told to find a new home for his cat, there was a good reason. Domestic cats are leading transmitters of the oocysts, the thick-walled spores of the parasite, which can live outside a host for long periods of time. When a cat eats a mouse with the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, the oocysts are passed out of the cat into its feces, where they remain alive for long periods in a litter box; for months or years in moist soil. For this reason, the simple act of organ transplant recipients cleaning the cat’s litter box may prove deadly.

Direct contact with cat feces is not the most prevalent way for an organ transplant recipient to contract toxoplasmosis. During transplantation an organ or bone marrow recipient’s donor may have been infected, transmitting it into the patient. If the transplant patient had the infection before the immune system was compromised the introduction by the donor organ or bone marrow of a more chronic disease could cause toxoplasmosis to arise. The only way to try and avoid these scenarios is for anyone at risk for Toxoplasma gondii to undergo antibody screening and for anyone who owns a cat to take precautions when around cat feces.

To lessen exposure, transplant recipients are advised to avoid litter boxes altogether, but if contact with litter boxes is made, to wash their hands thoroughly and boil empty litter trays for five minutes to kill any infectious oocysts. Since cat feces may be present in yards and gardens, recipients should always wear gloves when gardening or handling soil or sand. Vegetables from gardens, where a cat may have defecated, should be thoroughly washed before cooking or eating. To avoid further infection, feed cats only dry, canned, or cooked food. The Toxoplasma gondii parasite may prove deadly to organ transplant recipients, so like Mr. Nance, it may be smarter to put the cats out.

By: Lisa Nance

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10 Responses to "Cats May Prove Deadly to Organ Transplant Recipients"

  1. Judi   February 4, 2018 at 2:54 pm

    Use precautions, you CAN get this from grocery store veggies, dirt, blowing dust and the litter box. I have it. I could have died from a brain cysts. Got fast treatment from a seizure and am one of the lucky ones! My coordinator has not seen this in kidney transplants in the 20 years shes been in transplant!

  2. Debbie Starks   February 4, 2018 at 7:05 am

    Wear gloves n a mask if u have to clean out a litter box n wash hands with warm soapy water afterwards. I will not give up my fur babies for they would NOT make it if I just gave them away or let them loose. I have had a tx kidney going over 15yrs n I have 2 indoor cats. Just take precautions.

  3. Jaime   April 17, 2017 at 1:57 pm

    There is a simple blood test that can be performed at your vet to test for this. Dont get rid of your cat until you get the test.

  4. Dale   February 11, 2017 at 6:57 am

    My girl friend is on transplant list. I have 14 cats. I live in the country. I have raised these cats from kittens we are the only ones they know. One cst had all her teeth pulled and is on special food. Most of them are 10 years old. It is so sad to get rid of them. Now most if not all of them will die. One cat has Never been outside her whole life. So sad.

  5. Dale   February 11, 2017 at 6:54 am

    My girl friend is pm transplant list. O have 24 cats. I live in country. I have raised these cats from kittens we are the only ones they know. One had all his teeth pulled and is on special food. Most of them are 10 years old. It is so sad to get rid of them. Now most if not all of them will die. One cat has Never been outside his whole life. So sad.

  6. Jeff   October 18, 2015 at 11:09 am

    Another example of uninformed advice – there are straightforward methods to ensuring safety after transplant if you have a cat. I can’t stress this enough – get up-to-date informed advice from the transplant doctor. The title of this post is a bit concerning.

  7. paul savage   May 4, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    Im 19 years out from a heart transplant. I have four cats. They all go out. I think im still alive. If im not tomorrow I will let you know..

  8. Cleavon Kaddiddlehopper   March 6, 2015 at 10:18 pm

    Cleavon is a funny name for a cat. I wish my name was Cleavon. I like Cleavon. Oh, that’s right. My name is Cleavon.

  9. E Taylor   January 15, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    Wouldn’t it be SMARTER to simply keep the cat inside, make sure the cat does not have the infection (vet can check and YES, there is treatment for a cat with the toxo parasite) AND to NOT let your cat eat raw meat. Also, just an FYI, there is a higher risk of contracting toxo from raw pork and rare lamb than from a cat.

  10. Judee Hill   September 23, 2013 at 7:23 am

    Is there any inoculation or preventative for the cat to receive to protect from this parasite?


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