I had an advice call the other day about control of Tritrichomonas fetus in cats. This protozoal parasite is being recognized as an important cause of diarrhea in cats, particularly in crowded situations such as catteries. In addition to the standard discussion about control of this parasite in cats, the question about human risks was raised. Tritrichomonas fetus is passed in the stool of infected cats, and other cats become infected by ingesting the organism. It is certainly possible that someone with an infected cat could be exposed to this parasite through inadvertent ingestion of the parasite following contact with infected surfaces (e.g. the cat’s fur or litter box). Although this sounds gross, it probably occurs more often that we think. We encounter bacteria of fecal-origin regularly throughout the day. Keep that in mind the next time you don’t want to be bothered washing your hands.
The risk of human infection with T. fetus is unclear, but is probably quite low. There is only one report of human infection by this parasite, and the person was immunosuppressed. Risks to healthy people are probably very low but we can’t say there is no risk. Basic hygiene measures (especially hand hygiene and good litter box management) should reduce the risks even further. People with weakened immune systems should take greater care (because of the risks from this organism and many others), but still, common sense practices are the key. More information about household infection control and litter box management for cat owners is available on the Worms & Germs Resources page.
Some excellent information on Tritrichomonas fetus can be found on the website of Dr. Jody Gookin, a leading researcher in this field.