Comparison of the modified agglutination test and real-time PCR for detection of Toxoplasma gondii exposure in feral cats from Phillip Island, Australia, and risk factors associated with infection

Int J Parasitol Parasites Wildl. 2020 May 18;12:126-133. doi: 10.1016/j.ijppaw.2020.05.006. eCollection 2020 Aug.


Toxoplasma gondii is considered a disease risk for many native Australian species. Feral cats are the key definitive host of T. gondii in Australia and therefore, investigating the epidemiology of T. gondii in cat populations is essential to understanding the risk posed to wildlife. Test sensitivity and specificity are poorly defined for diagnostic tests targeting T. gondii in cats and there is a need for validated techniques. This study focused on the feral cat population on Phillip Island, Victoria, Australia. We compared a novel real-time PCR (qPCR) protocol to the modified agglutination test (MAT) and used a Bayesian latent class modelling approach to assess the diagnostic parameters of each assay and estimate the true prevalence of T. gondii in feral cats. In addition, we performed multivariable logistic regression to determine risk factors associated with T. gondii infection in cats. Overall T. gondii prevalence by qPCR and MAT was 79.5% (95% confidence interval 72.6-85.0) and 91.8% (84.6-95.8), respectively. Bayesian modelling estimated the sensitivity and specificity of the MAT as 96.2% (95% credible interval 91.8-98.8) and 82.1% (64.9-93.6), and qPCR as 90.1% (83.6-95.5) and 96.0% (82.1-99.8), respectively. True prevalence of T. gondii infection in feral cats on Phillip Island was estimated as 90.3% (83.2-95.1). Multivariable logistic regression analysis indicated that T. gondii infection was positively associated with weight and this effect was modified by season. Cats trapped in winter had a high probability of infection, regardless of weight. The present study suggests qPCR applied to tissue is a highly sensitive, specific and logistically feasible tool for T. gondii testing in feral cat populations. Additionally, T. gondii infection is highly prevalent in feral cats on Phillip Island, which may have significant impacts on endemic and introduced marsupial populations.

Keywords: Feral cats; Modified agglutination test; Sensitivity; Specificity; Toxoplasma gondii; qPCR.