Tasmanian councillor calls for tougher roaming cat laws to counter spread of parasite toxoplasma

Emma Goyne doesn’t own a cat, so when she was pregnant the risk of toxoplasmosis wasn’t really front of mind.

But she remembers the exact moment she believes she came into contact with the potentially dangerous parasite that causes the infection.

She was 14 weeks pregnant and cleaning out her horse stable, which a neighbourhood cat had been using as a litter box.

“There was an incident when I was cleaning out my stables and I ended up with cat poo on my hands,” Ms Goyne told Leon Compton on ABC Radio Hobart.

Ms Goyne said while she washed her hands straight away, she believes it was enough time to be exposed.

An image from a microscope with a large pink blob covered by dark dots.

Toxoplasmosis is caused by the parasite toxoplasma gondii.(Wikimedia Commons: Toxoplasmosis by Nephron, CC-by-sa 3.0)

Cold and flu symptoms

Ms Goyne said she developed cold and flu symptoms but “shrugged it off”. 

“It lingered for quite a few weeks” she said.

“Eventually my doctor tested me and I found out I had toxoplasmosis.

“Luckily I wasn’t deeply unwell from it.”

She believes she has no ongoing health effects since contracting it, but wants other people to be aware of its risks.

Her scans continued to show a healthy baby, and in June she gave birth to her son, Aaryon.

“Unfortunately on our second day of having him with us he failed his hearing test in his right ear,” she said.

Her son was diagnosed with permanent hearing loss.

“We will hopefully be able to manage that going forward,” she said.

“I consider us to be very lucky.”

How the parasite spreads

Cats are the main host for the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which causes toxoplasmosis, and they catch it from infected prey.

Once infected, a person carries it for life and there’s no cure for it, but most people will never know they have it.

The parasite can live for long periods of time in cat faeces, which is how livestock can become infected when grazing.

It can survive in livestock muscle even after the animal is slaughtered, which is how toxoplasmosis can be contracted from raw and undercooked meat.

Eating raw and undercooked meat is the most common route of infection.

A black and white image of a cat in tall grass behind a water fowl nesting.

Roaming cats kill wildlife and spread the parasite toxoplasma.(Supplied: Kingborough Council)

Toxoplasmosis, which Ms Goyne had, is an infection caused by the parasite. It can cause scarring in the back of the eye.

If a woman is infected while pregnant, it can be passed on to the unborn child.

Congenital toxoplasmosis has been associated with stillbirth, developmental delay, eye inflammation and impaired hearing.

It has been labelled the most successful parasite in the world and it’s estimated 30 to 50 per cent of people across the world are infected with toxoplasma.

Call for tougher cat laws

Ms Goyne, who last year was elected to the Clarence City Council, a local government area on Hobart’s eastern shore, recently used her first motion before the council to bring cat management to light.

It was passed unanimously. 

“We want to establish what the state government position is on developing a statewide cat management program,” she said.

A woman in a red dress is standing outside a building holding a new baby.

Ms Goyne’s son Aaryon was born after she was elected to Clarence council.(Supplied: Emma Goyne)

In 2021 Tasmania’s updated cat laws came into effect, making it legal for a landowner to trap a cat that roamed onto their property.

From last year it also became compulsory for cats over four months to be microchipped.

But Ms Goyne said the laws didn’t go far enough — she wants cat laws to more resemble dog management laws. 

“If you can contain your cat to your property I don’t have a problem with your cat being in your backyard,” she said.

“After my personal experience I thought it was time to stand up and try and make it happen myself.

“We all have responsibilities to the community and the environment.”

grey rock wallaby lies on orange garbage bag with blood on its face

A sick wallaby. Three wallabies have tested positive for toxoplasmosis, which is usually carried by cats.(Supplied: Wallaby Refuge on Magnetic Island)

Impact on livestock, native wildlife

Landcare Tasmania chief executive Peter Stronach said cat owners needed to be educated about the impacts a roaming cat had on the environment and people’s health.

“We don’t have a roaming cat law in Tasmania,” he said.

“Cats are still allowed to roam wherever they want unless there’s a cat management area put in place by a council or state government.

“Cats are really the only domestic animal in Tasmania that don’t need to be confined, which is really odd.”

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