Baylisascariasis in Cats
The Baylisascaris procyonis larvae is found in a large part of the animal population, including humans — making this a zoonotic disease, which means that it can be spread from an infected animal to other animal species, which includes humans. Most commonly called “raccoon disease” because of its prevalence in the raccoon population, baylisascariasis comes from contact with raccoon feces, and from ingesting animal tissue that is infected with the B. procyonis parasite. This parasite is commonly referred to as roundworm. Raccoons are the optimal carriers of this worm, since the health of the raccoon is not adversely affected, making it the ideal host and disseminator of the parasite. The B. procyonis larvae is typically spread through the fecal material into the environment. Any contact with the feces, or with soil that has been used by an infected raccoon, may lead to systemic infection. Therefore, it is essential to practice methods of avoidance and caution in areas where raccoons are prevalent.
Intermediate carriers are birds, rabbits, and rodents, amongst other animals. The larva is known to migrate to the brain, where it affects the nervous system. In this weakened state, the small animal becomes an easy catch, and the larva is ingested when the predator animal (i.e., a cat) ingests tissue from the infected animal. This is another way in which the worm is disseminated to other animals.
This disease is known to occur throughout the United States, with reported outbreaks in zoos and on farms. However, an outbreak can occur wherever animals are kept together in large groups.
While this infection can often be treated in adult cats, it is almost always fatal for kittens. In addition, because the worm sometimes attacks the brain and nervous system, this infection may be mistaken for rabies. If rabies is suspected, you may wish to ask your veterinarian to test for the presence of the B. procyonis parasite.
Symptoms and Types
Two types of baylisascariasis have been reported in cats: intestinal infection and visceral disease. The development of the roundworm begins with ingestion of the roundworm eggs. They then migrate to the intestines, where they further develop before their final migration into the viscera (the organs that occupy the abdominal cavities), the nervous system, or the eye. These types of infections are referred to, respectively, as larval migrans; visceral larval migrans (VLM); neural larval migrans (NLM); and ocular larval migrans (OLM).
The intestinal form is most commonly found in adult cats, while infection of internal organs, particularly the brain and spinal cord (visceral disease) is more common in kittens. Often, there are not any outward symptoms associated with early onset of the disease, but occasionally cats will show signs of neurological disease due to the worm attacking the nervous system. Signs of neurological disease (NLM) include:
- Unsteady walking/loss of coordination or muscle control (ataxia)
- Difficulty eating/swallowing (dysphagia)
- Lethargy, lying down excessively (recumbency)
- Confusion, lack of attention
Infection of the viscera (VLM) may present symptoms of liver and/or lung disease, while infection of the eye (OLM) may not be apparent until your cat has lost the use of its vision.
The most common method of acquiring the infection originates from sharing an area with infected raccoons. A cat can become infected with the disease from coming into contact with raccoon feces, from ingestion of B. procyonis eggs, which may remain viable in the soil long after the raccoon feces has disintegrated or been removed, from ingestion of animal tissue that is infected with the roundworm (e.g., rabbits, birds, etc.), or from close contact with other infected animals. Because cats frequently scratch at dirt after urinating or defecating onto it, a cat may pick up roundworm eggs on its paws and ingest the eggs while self grooming.
You will need to give your veterinarian a thorough history of your cat’s health, including a background history of symptoms, and possible incidents that might have led to this condition. The history you provide may give your veterinarian clues as to which organs are being affected. Knowing the path the parasite has taken is essential for treating the infection appropriately.
The intestinal form of baylisascariasis is found by examining the cat’s feces, while the larval form may be found in association with other diseases such as rabies, canine distemper, and congenital neurological defects. A direct fecal smear test will detect the intestinal form of the disease, while the larval form can usually be found through an eye (ophthalmoscopic) examination, or by a laboratory examination of a tissue sample.
If your cat tests positive for this parasite, there are several medications that can be administered.
For the intestinal form:
- Pyrantel Pamoate
- Mibemycin Oxime
For the larval form:
- Long-term albendazole
Living and Management
A follow-up visit is recommended two weeks after the initial treatment, in order to analyze the feces for worms, and then again after a month to check for the intestinal form of the disease. This is a zoonotic disease, transmissible to humans and other animals, with children being at the highest risk of acquiring the infection and of suffering the worst effects. Accidental ingestion of roundworm eggs can cause serious disease in humans. Ingestion may occur as a result of playing in sand that has been used by raccoons or other infected animals, from contact with soil that is infected with the eggs, or from contact with infected feces (during the course of cleaning it up or changing the litter box). It is essential to be especially cautious until you have been assured that your cat has entirely recovered from the infection and is no longer shedding the eggs through its feces. Disposable gloves should be worn while changing the litter box and when handling your cat’s waste materials. In addition, hygiene regarding the hands and nails will need to be a priority if you live in an area that is occupied by raccoons.
The location where your cat contracted the roundworm should be well observed and monitored, and neighbors should be notified of the risk to their own pets.
The most important preventative step is to keep pets away from areas with raccoons and to prevent pets from ingesting animal tissue. Other steps that can be taken to protect your family and pet from this parasite are to keep sand boxes covered, check your property for raccoon droppings and deceased animals, and make sure that your cat or kitten has been dewormed.
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