When I was pregnant with my first child, I happened to mention to my doctor that we have three cats in our home. Like too many doctors, while he never went as far as suggesting that we must “get rid” of the cats, he was quite concerned. Well, at our next meeting, it was my turn to educate the doctor and, armed with my research, I convinced him to never again warn against keeping cats in the home during pregnancy.
Let me share these facts with you here, so you too can see why re-homing a cat due to a pregnancy makes as much sense as instructing pregnant women to become vegetarians and stay away from gardens.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor myself, and this article does not aim at providing any medical advice. It is meant to encourage you to conduct your own research and be informed when you discuss the issue with your doctor.
Toxoplasmosis – Why All the Fuss?
If a pregnant woman becomes infected with the toxoplasma gondii parasite for the first time, it can indeed pose a grave risk to the baby. The results can be anything from a miscarriage to serious birth defects.
So, should you panic? Not really – but you should become informed.
First, if the mother has been exposed to toxoplasmosis before, her immunity is passed on to the fetus and it is protected. According to the CDC: “In the United States it is estimated that 22.5% of the population 12 years and older have been infected with Toxoplasma. In various places throughout the world, it has been shown that up to 95% of some populations have been infected with Toxoplasma.” So, we are talking about a fairly common infection.
You can ask for a simple blood test to be carried out before the pregnancy to check whether or not you are immune to toxoplasmosis. The blood test can show both a current infection and the existence of antibodies which suggests you are already immune.
Pregnant women testing negatively for toxoplasmosis should indeed be concerned and avoid anything that can lead to a first-time infection.
Risk Factors: How To Avoid Toxoplasma Gondii
The CDC’s website lists seven ways in which you can catch toxoplasmosis. Cats only come at number five (followed by congenital infection and the even rarer scenario of an organ transplant…).
The first four ways mentioned all deal with food and water contamination, raw meat being the primary source of toxoplasma contamination. You can get toxoplasmosis by:
- consuming raw or undercooked meat
- handling raw meat with your hands and not washing them afterwards
- using utensils that came in contact with raw meat
- drinking contaminated water
Zoonotic Toxoplamosis Infections from Cats
How did cats get involved in this mess?
Well, if a cat ingests raw meat infected with toxoplasmosis, it will catch the infection much like a human would. While there may be no symptoms, the cat will shed toxoplasma parasites in its feces for a period of three weeks after the initial infection.
During that period, ingesting those cat feces, or anything they have come in contact with, could cause infection in a human being.
To recap, in order for a human being to catch toxoplasmosis from a cat:
1. The person would have no prior exposure to toxoplasmosis (no immunity).
2. The cat has to eat infected raw meat, such as wild prey or uncooked meat (obviously, not all raw meat or prey is indeed infected).
3. The person needs to directly ingest the cat’s feces or something that touched them within three weeks of the cat’s infection.
Obviously, the risk of direct infection from a cat is pretty slim, at best. Yet, this being such a scary condition during pregnancy, you should definitely take some safety measures… just in case.
Avoiding Toxoplasmosis – Safety Measures
First, please refer to the CDC fact sheet and their list of safety measures (at the bottom of that page). You will notice that they all deal with food and its preparation, and with working with garden soil.
When it comes to cats, here are a few more tips:
1. If you can, let someone else handle the litter box chores while you’re pregnant. It’s a great excuse for a nine-month vacation from that particular household chore!
2. If you have to deal with the litter box, wear disposable gloves and get rid of them when you’re done.
3. Practice sensible hygiene and wash your hands after handling the cat litter (even if gloved), and before dealing with food.
4. If you can, keep your cat indoors only and make sure it does not have access to prey or uncooked meat.
5. If you feed raw, consider freezing the meat for a few days before using it to prepare Kitty’s meal.
Toxoplasmosis is a concern for pregnant women who have not been previously exposed to the parasite. A simple blood test can help identify if you are one of those women.
Proper hygiene and avoiding contact with raw meats (for you or your cat), along with some extra precautions around the litter box, should provide more than ample defence against being infected. Feel free to keep on enjoying your cat’s company during the pregnancy!
And on a Personal Note…
Remember my visit to the doctor? The blood test revealed that I had no previous exposure to toxoplasmosis (despite years of dealing with cats, at home and in shelters).
I let my husband handle the litter box for the duration of the pregnancy (what a perfect excuse). I also stayed away from handling any type of raw meat, chicken or fish, and of course from eating any medium-rare steaks. My healthy son just turned seven, by the way.
Written by Anne Moss.
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