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Zoo seeks support of local cat owners

Auckland City Council
Media release

12 December 2007

Zoo seeks support of local cat owners

Auckland Zoo is asking local cat owners for their assistance in helping to prevent the spread of toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by a parasite commonly found in young domestic and stray cats that can be fatal in other animals.

Marsupials and meerkats are particularly susceptible to the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, which is spread through the faeces of kittens and cats. At present the zoo has several female wallabies with joeys, and could be welcoming more new wallaby babies in the new year. In addition, it now has two breeding groups of meerkats.

The zoo has distributed a letter asking cat owners in neighbouring streets to ensure their cats have collars, or to collect one for free from the zoo, and to phone the zoo on 360 3800 to provide contact details and a description of their cat It is also requesting people do not feed wild cats in the area, and spay or neuter pet cats that are not owned for breeding purposes.

In March this year, the zoo sent a similar flyer to local residents following four wallaby deaths in quick succession in February, all of which were the direct result of toxoplasmosis, which is particularly fast acting in marsupials.

“Since this period we have had only one death which may have been related to toxoplasmosis. We are very encouraged by the wonderful support we have had so far from local residents, which we greatly appreciate, and by working together I feel sure we can all but eradicate the threat altogether,” says Auckland Zoo curator,Charles Cadwallader.

“This is really just a follow-up reminder. It is possible that new people have moved into the area since this time, or that some residents have acquired new cats, or are maybe about to acquire one as a Christmas present.”

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“We want to safeguard people’s pets, as well as keep our own animals safe. Despite our eight-foot high outer wall, the zoo is impossible to cat-proof. So if a local cat does happen to come onto the zoo premises, and we’re able to easily identify it and contact its owner to come and collect it, this helps everyone,” says Mr Cadwallader.

The zoo places cat cage traps around its property. When a cat walks into one of these, a door shuts and it is safely contained. Cats that cannot be identified are put into the custody of one of the local agencies that deal with stray or feral cats

Auckland Zoo’s senior vet, Dr Richard Jakob-Hoff, says cat faeces can contain the microscopic eggs of this parasite which can then be dispersed over the ground by rain - so even a small amount can quickly spread the Toxoplasma gondii parasite.

“Along with animals, people can also be at risk, particularly pregnant women. A woman who has not already been exposed to the parasite (a blood test will determine this) who becomes infected during pregnancy can pass it on to her foetus,” says Dr Jakob-Hoff. “The best precaution is for households with a pregnant woman to avoid getting a kitten until after the child is born, and for pregnant woman to avoid handling young cats or gardening unless wearing gloves.”

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Because Toxoplasma is a widespread organism, cat owners, keen gardeners and those who prepare meat meals for their families are just as likely as zoo workers to come in contact with it. There are a number of ways to reduce the risks of human infection, either in the zoo or at home:

• Wash hands after handling cats or their faeces, or after gardening in areas where cats may defecate. Faeces that have been “aged” for 24hours+ are more dangerous than fresh faeces. Covering children’s sandpits to keep cats out is recommended.

• Wash hands after handling raw or partly cooked meat and eat only cooked meat. Lamb, venison and pork is more likely to have toxoplasma cysts present than beef. (The cysts are too small to see with the naked eye).


• Pregnant women who have not been previously exposed to toxoplasma (ie. have a negative blood test to toxoplasma) are the most likely to pass the organism on to their foetus if they become infected during pregnancy. (Those with a pre-existing toxoplasma exposure are generally safe from passing on the organism). Households with a pregnant woman present should avoid getting a new kitten until after the child is born, and pregnant women should avoid handling cats or their faeces or gardening unless wearing gloves. The same precautions should also be undertaken by those with immuno-incompetent diseases such as HIV-AIDS.

• Most people who acquire toxoplasmosis have no symptoms or just mild flu-like symptoms. If you think you may have contracted toxoplasmosis ask your doctor for a blood test. It is recommended that all women who become pregnant (or preferably just before becoming pregnant) have a toxoplasma test to see if they have antibodies against the disease that will offer protection during pregnancy.


ABOUT AUCKLAND ZOO
Auckland Zoo is an enterprise of Auckland City Council. It is home to the largest collection of native and exotic wildlife species in New Zealand (over 1300 animals and 179 species) and attracts over half a million visitors annually. It is becoming increasingly well known nationally and internationally through the award-winning television programme, 'The Zoo'. At the heart of all Auckland Zoo's work and activities is its mission: "to focus the Zoo’s resources to benefit conservation and provide exciting visitor experiences which inspire and empower people to take positive action for wildlife and the environment". Auckland Zoo is a member of both the Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks & Aquaria (ARAZPA) and the World Association of Zoos & Aquariums (WAZA).

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