Featured Image Credit: NOAA
By: Sarah Sharkey
Three critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals recently died due to toxoplasmosis. The disease is caused by parasites that create cysts in the muscle and organ tissues in animals. In addition to these cysts, it may also cause inflammation of the heart, liver, and brain.
The deaths are a blow to the Hawaiian monk seal population, but they could have been prevented easily according to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Recourse (DLNR) and the Department of Health.
The toxoplasmosis parasite only has one known reproductive host, cats. That means that the parasite can only reproduce inside the feline digestive system. The cat will then spread the eggs through its feces and the parasite is free to infect other animals, like these unfortunate monk seals.
The parasite is not only dangerous for monk seals and other animals, but also unborn human children. This is a huge problem on our hands, but how can we solve it? We can prevent the wild cat population from increasing. The chair of DLNR, Suzanne Case, had this to say about the infected cats, “In addition to preying on native wildlife, cats pose a significant health risk to people, marine wildlife, and birds,” Case explained. Toxoplasmosis can also infect Hawai‘i’s native birds, including the nēnē and the newly released Hawaiian crow, the ʻAlalā.. Feeding cats near water obviously increase the risk of transmission but, given the nature of the watersheds in Hawai‘i, cats almost anywhere are probably contributing to the problem. The cysts can live for months in soil and can wash into streams and runoff and be carried into the ocean from almost anywhere. Feeding cats at state parks, boat harbors, and other coastal areas increase the risk of transmission because the cysts don’t need to travel very far to get into the ocean. Frankly, feeding cats anywhere where their feces can ultimately wash into the ocean is a problem.”
Please keep this in mind next time you are tempted to feed the cats!