Categories: parasites

Fake news: New York Times’ article about house cats killing sea otters

The New York Times’ article about sea otters becoming infected with Toxoplasma gondii is highly misleading to the point of it being fake news. The title “What’s Killing California’s Sea Otters? House Cats.’ is horrendous. It states in unequivocal terms that we have to blame domestic cats in America for the death of sea otters off California. It is all the cat’s fault. They are evil, murdering animals. That’s the gist of the title. That’s what the author is implying. It is way too simiplistic. Why not blame farmers for keeping livestock that is infected with toxoplasmosis (see base of page).

This is ridiculous. It is scientific mumbo-jumbo. It will be much more accurate to say that domestic and feral cats in California suffer from an infection called toxoplasmosis as do many humans. It is something which is unfortunate and which has befallen the domestic cat as it has humans. You can’t blame domestic cats for becoming infected with a parasite. You can blame the parasite, nature and humans. How do you blame an innocent animal anyway?

Sea Otter. Photo: Pixabay

Further, you can’t blame feral cats for either (a) being feral cats or (b) becoming infected with this parasite. Feral cats exist because of human carelessness. They carry the infection because that’s the way nature works. And the oocysts get washed down to the sea where sea otters live because of the way humans behave. Some people flush domestic cat poo down the toilet. This is a human problem and it should be stopped. Time magazine suggests that this is a major reason why Toxoplasma oocysts find their way to the sea.

The author of the article, Francie Diep, goes on to say that a study analysed the DNA from 135 sea otters with the Toxoplasma infection that died between 1998 and 2015. At the end of the article she writes that “most of the 135 otters examined by her team showed no evidence of brain damage, an indication that the parasite had not contributed to their deaths”.

Accordingly, 135 otters did not die of Toxoplasma infection but 12 deaths were determined to have been caused primarily by toxoplasmosis. Note the word “primarily”. So perhaps less than the 12 sea otters died of toxoplasmosis solely. What percentage of the total number of California sea otters is that? Well there are 3000 sea otters in the sea off California according to defenders.org. That makes about 0.33% of sea otters killed by toxoplasmosis.

There are a range of reasons why sea otters are killed off the Californian coast. Another one is thorny-headed worms dropped into the ocean by seabirds. Toxic algae blooms triggered by urea, a key ingredient in fertiliser is another reason for untimely deaths of sea otters. There are many others.

The point that I’m making is that the New York Times’ article is highly misleading and likely to encourage abuse of feral cats when it is the human’s duty to treat them humanely. The New York Times’ article is unbalanced and unfair to cats.

NOTE: cats and people get the disease from eating raw or uncooked pork, beef, mutton or veal or unpasteurised dairy products. Yes, cats carry the Toxoplasma oocysts which are passed in feces but it happens for a very short time after initial exposure.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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