Toxoplasmosis In Dogs: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Key takeaway

Toxoplasmosis is a contagious disease passed from cats to other warm-blooded animals, including dogs and humans. The toxoplasma parasites complete their life cycle in the cat and are expelled through their feces, where they pose a threat to dogs and humans.

Some dogs eat anything and everything, especially when you’re not looking. If you have dogs and cats in the home, you may find your dog trying to eat cat poop from time to time. Of course, you already know your dog shouldn't be eating cat poop. Not only is it gross and can make their breath stinky, but it can also be dangerous to their health. Unfortunately, you can't watch your dog at all times, and they may eat cat poop from the litter box. However, this nasty habit could make them sick, increasing their chances of contracting harmful parasites. 

Cats can spread several pathogens and parasites to dogs through their feces. For example, toxoplasmosis is a parasitic disease that can infect dogs and humans. Can dogs get toxoplasmosis from cat poop? Dogs can get several diseases from ingesting cat poop, including toxoplasmosis. Luckily, most healthy dogs don't need treatment, and their immune systems can fight off the infection independently. However, puppies and immunocompromised dogs are at an increased risk. 

What Is Toxoplasmosis?

Toxoplasmosis in dogs is a disease caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which can infect any animal, including humans and cats.1 While this parasitic disease can affect any warm-blooded animal, cats are the only known primary hosts, while humans and dogs are intermediate hosts.2 Simply put, the parasite completes its life cycle in a cat's body and excretes it back into the environment through its feces. However, in dogs and humans, the parasite can live in the body, but it cannot complete its life cycle, instead causing infection. 

While cats are hosts, the disease can be spread in other ways. The main source of transmission of the parasite in humans is raw meat and unwashed fruits and vegetables.2 

Symptoms of toxoplasmosis in dogs

Symptoms Of Toxoplasmosis In Dogs

Healthy adult dogs typically don't experience any symptoms of toxoplasmosis. However, in puppies and immunocompromised dogs, the parasites can spread throughout the body, with symptoms such as:

In most cases, cats will have clinical symptoms, but most adult dogs won't. However, the parasite can still make dogs ill and look like other infections such as rabies or distemper.2 Puppies are at an increased risk because they have developing immune systems, while immunocompromised dogs, or those with existing health conditions, have impaired immunity, making them more susceptible to illness.2

Causes

Dogs with toxoplasmosis become infected through direct contact with the toxoplasma parasite.2 For example, a dog may become infected by sniffing or ingesting an infected cat's feces or around the soil or cat litter where the parasite lives. They can also become infected by consuming raw or undercooked meat, drinking contaminated water, or ingesting contaminated fruits and vegetables. 

Some dogs are hunters and may catch chipmunks, squirrels, birds, and rabbits in the yard. Unfortunately, if they catch and eat an infected animal, they can become infected with the toxoplasma parasite. 

Diagnosing & Treating Toxoplasmosis

If you think your dog has become infected with the toxoplasma parasite, they should be taken to the vet as soon as possible for diagnosis. Your vet will need a detailed history of your dog's health, symptoms, and possible incidents that could have resulted in their infection, such as eating cat feces or coming into contact with feral cats.2 

Vets will perform a physical exam to evaluate your dog's health and perform routine lab tests to confirm infection. Some tests include:

  • Blood count: The blood count test will help diagnose toxoplasmosis in dogs in the form of an abnormally low number of white blood cells. During recovery, this same test will be used to look for signs that the body is fighting the infection.2
  • Biochemistry profile: The biochemistry profile may show high levels of liver enzymes and the level of proteins found in the blood, which typically decreases in dogs with toxoplasmosis. 
  • Serological tests: Serological tests can help make a definitive diagnosis by measuring the toxoplasma antigens in the dog's body to determine the type of infection and whether it's recent or long-term.2 
  • Urinalysis: The urinalysis can help diagnose toxoplasmosis in dogs by showing abnormally high protein levels in the urine.  

They may also use more advanced tests if they believe the infection has reached the central nervous system.2

In most cases, healthy adult dogs may not need treatment because they won't experience any symptoms or health issues.1 However, dogs with weakened or developing immune systems may need emergency treatment and hospitalization. Treatments for toxoplasmosis in dogs with severe symptoms include:

  • Fluid therapy to treat dehydration
  • Antibiotics to fight the infection
  • Anticonvulsants to prevent seizures1

Long-Term Effects

In serious cases where medical intervention is necessary, dogs may be at risk for long-term side effects resulting from the infection reaching the brain. These long-term effects can include the following: 

  • Respiratory issues
  • Seizures
  • Weakened immune system

Preventing Toxoplasmosis

Prevention of toxoplasmosis in dogs is the best treatment. Since toxoplasmosis can be contracted by dogs eating cat poop, you should keep your dog away from litter boxes in the home. Litter boxes should also be cleaned frequently. You should also prevent dogs or other pets from digging in the dirt, especially if you have stray cats on your property. 

Another common cause of toxoplasmosis in dogs is eating raw meats and unwashed fruits and vegetables. Therefore, you should never feed your dog any raw meat and always wash any fruits and vegetables you intend to share with them. 

You should also try to prevent yourself from contracting toxoplasmosis. While you and your dog can't pass it to each other, individuals with a weakened immune system and pregnant women should avoid handling cat poop. 

If you have cats in your home, you can have them tested for the virus to ensure their feces isn't hosting the parasite, giving you a little peace of mind that your pets won't become sick.2

Preventive tips 

Frequently Asked Questions

How long can toxoplasmosis live on surfaces?

The oocyst, a stage of the toxoplasma parasite's life cycle in which they're shed in the feces of infected cats, can live for up to 18 months in moist soil or water. They can be killed when kept at a temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit for 1-2 minutes, so they're ultimately eliminated in meat during the cooking process. However, they can survive in uncovered feces for up to 46 days and 334 days when covered.3 Therefore, you should aim to clean your cat's litter box every day to prevent infection to yourself or your dog, especially if you have dogs with weakened immune systems.  

Can dogs spread toxoplasmosis?

Dogs and humans can get toxoplasmosis, but they don't shed the parasite in their feces like cats do. Dogs cannot spread the infection, but they can become infected by the parasite, causing potential health concerns since it can be fatal to young puppies. Toxoplasmosis is a zoonotic disease that's passed from animals to humans, but dogs are not primary hosts, so you won't contract it from them. You also can't pass it to your dog. Instead, infection typically occurs by consuming raw or undercooked meat or coming into contact with the feces of an infected cat. This disease is not usually cause for concern in healthy dogs and humans, but it can be dangerous to pregnant women. 

Can toxoplasmosis in dogs be cured?

Toxoplasma typically doesn't require any form of treatment in healthy dogs because they don't show symptoms. Most dogs infected with toxoplasmosis go on to live long, healthy lives. When caught early, the virus can be cured, even in dogs with weakened immune systems. However, if left untreated, it can spread and become chronic, requiring long-term treatment. 

When dogs require treatment for the infection, they'll receive medication to help eliminate the parasite. Additionally, it's important to keep their immune system healthy to help eliminate all traces of the infection. Unfortunately, there is no treatment for fetal or chronic toxoplasmosis. 

Pregnant woman sitting on couch looking at her phone while gray and white dog lies next to her

Final Notes

Toxoplasmosis is a serious disease that can harm the health of dogs and their pet parents. Cats serve as the primary host for the parasites, completing their life cycle in the cat's body and are then expelled in their feces. Therefore, dogs that eat cat poop are at an increased risk of developing the disease. However, there are other causes of toxoplasmosis in dogs and humans, including ingestion of raw or uncooked meat and unwashed fruits and vegetables. 

Luckily, most healthy adult dogs and humans can fight off the infection independently without symptoms. However, immuno-compromised animals, including puppies with developing immune systems, can get severely sick, and the infection can prove fatal. Consult a vet if you're worried your dog has contracted pathogens or parasites from eating cat poop or infected foods. 

References

  1. Dubey, J. P. "Toxoplasmosis in Dogs - Dog Owners." Merck Veterinary Manual, 18 Oct. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/dog-owners/disorders-affecting-multiple-body-systems-of-dogs/toxoplasmosis-in-dogs.

  2. "Toxoplasmosis in Dogs." PetMD, https://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/infectious-parasitic/c_dg_toxoplasmosis.

  3. Canada, Public Health Agency of. "Government of Canada." Canada.ca, Gouvernement Du Canada, 19 Sept. 2014, https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/laboratory-biosafety-biosecurity/pathogen-safety-data-sheets-risk-assessment/toxoplasma-gondii-pathogen-safety-data-sheet.html.