What child doesn’t love building sandcastles and excavating “artifacts” from the giant sandbox in the neighborhood park? We know how fun outdoor parks and sandboxes can be, but do you know about the potential dangers lurking inside? Outdoor and feral cats like to use sandboxes as a place to relieve themselves, so it is very important to practice good hygiene to avoid ingesting a parasitic worm!
Why Do Cats Use Sandboxes?
Cats instinctively will cover their waste without any training in order to cover their scent from predators and other cats. Since it is easiest to cover their feces in sand or soft dirt, cats are naturally attracted to these materials. Indoor cats use a litter box to relieve themselves and often like the box to be located in a quiet, private area in the house. But what about neighborhood and feral cats? You guessed it. A sandbox is the next best thing to a litter box. In the wild, cats will search for that soft or sandy soil for easy waste burial, and a sandbox is the perfect place. Their use of sandboxes is harmful to those in the community as feline waste carries bacteria, diseases, and parasites that are then deposited into the environment.
Cat Poop Poses A Problem
Unlike playground equipment, children digging in the sand may come into contact with animal feces or areas that feces have touched. This is a health hazard due to the fact that animal feces can carry parasitic worms that are easily transferred to humans. Common parasitic worms found in cat feces include roundworm and hookworm. These worms lay eggs in an infected animal that are then expelled when a cat goes to bathroom. The eggs then hatch and the larvae grow into mature worms that are waiting for a new host.
In addition to parasitic worms, cat poop can carry a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. T. gondii produces an infectious form of the parasite inside of a cat called oocysts, that are excreted along with the cat’s waste. The oocysts are very easily transferred to humans, and have a potential link to mental health issues including schizophrenia as well as potential immune system complications. T. gondii can also cause flu-like symptoms in children and can cause birth defects, which is why pregnant women are strongly discouraged from cleaning litter boxes.
If your child is playing in the sandbox and is unfortunately infected with a parasite, he or she may contract Ground Itch, a disease caused by a hookworm infection. Hookworm eggs are found in the feces of dogs and cats, and after the eggs hatch, they grow into mature worms. These worms will burrow into a human’s skin causing cutaneous larval migrans, better known as “Ground Itch” or “Sandworm Disease.”
Initially, there may be itching and a rash at the site of infection that can grow up to several centimeters per day. The rash will sometimes look winding and snake-like, as the hookworm burrows along a winding path. As the disease progresses, one may also experience abdominal pain, diarrhea, and lethargy. This disease can be treated with anti-parasitic medications orally or topically. If the infection is not treated, it can take several weeks or even months to go away on its own, so we recommend visiting your doctor immediately!
Important Tips To Protect Yourself & Your Child
Prevention is the best way to make sure that you and your family stay worm-free. If you don’t want to stop your child from building sandcastles and finding buried treasure, try some of these tips to stay happy and healthy.
1. Wash your hands frequently and encourage your child to do the same. This is especially important after your child is done playing outdoors. Carry a travel-sized hand sanitizer with you to use directly after your child is done digging in the sand.
2. Discourage your child from touching his or her face, eyes, nose, and mouth to avoid worm ingestion. Keep a careful eye on toddlers and young children that want to put everything into their mouths.
3. Wash clothing after playtime. When you get home from the park, ask your child to change their clothing and put the clothes that were in the sandbox directly into the washing machine, separate from clean clothes. This will help prevent cross contamination and will prevent transferring a parasite from outside into your home.
4. Cover sandboxes after your child is done playing. If a sandbox has been left open, dump out the sand and replace it with fresh, clean sand. Just because you cannot see any paw prints or feces in the sand, does not mean that your sandbox has not become a litter box overnight!
5. For other sandy areas that cannot be covered like the beach, make sure you check the area that your child will be playing in, and have everyone (including yourself) wash their hands frequently.
6. Use a deterrent. Cats do not like the scent of vinegar, so try spraying a vinegar-water solution around the edges of your sandbox to deter cats from using it. You can also spray store-bought repellents that are offensive to cats, but not harmful to animals or humans.