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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Mr Stronach said cats were having a huge impact on biodiversity.
“Toxoplasmosis has a really big impact on productive land and animals bred for economic benefit,” he said.
Livestock can be infected with toxoplasmosis if they graze areas where cats have been, which can result in livestock deaths.
Mr Stronach said Landcare needed more support from landowners.
“We’ve done studies all over Australia — everybody’s cat has an impact.”
A state government spokesperson said cats were prohibited from a number of areas in Tasmania including national parks, conservation areas and state forests.
“The Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania is working with local government to encourage greater participation of councils in cat management,” the spokesperson said.
“The [Cat Management Act 2009] allows for development of municipal by-laws and the declaration of cat management areas where appropriate.
“However, it is up to the local council whether to exercise those powers.”
‘Miracle’ baby while on council
Ms Goyne was elected to the council just as she found out she was pregnant and became the first sitting councillor to give birth during a term on the Clarence council.
“My whole adult life I’d been told I couldn’t have children, so it was quite a miracle,” she said.
While pregnant women are told to avoid certain foods such as soft cheese because of the risk of listeria, toxoplasmosis is a lesser-known disease.
Ms Goyne said she had been aware of toxoplasmosis and its risk to wildlife, having volunteered with wildlife rescue.
Toxoplasmosis is known to infect eyes, causing blindness in native animals.
“I wasn’t really aware of how it affected people,” Ms Goyne said.
“When I got pregnant everyone said, ‘Don’t handle cat poo’, but I said, ‘I don’t have cats so it’s not an issue for me’.”