Cautions for the Pregnant Pet Owner
"Congratulations, you're pregnant! Too bad you'll have to get rid of your cat!"
Have you heard this common myth? For years doctors warned pregnant women that the feces of their pet cats could infect them with a parasite called toxoplasmosis, which causes miscarriage or severe birth defects. While it is true that toxoplasmosis is dangerous, it is not true that cat-owners are at a higher risk than other women.
A paper published in the July 2000 British Medical Journal states that contact with cats or cat feces does NOT correlate with risk of infection. The factors that DID increase risk included eating raw or undercooked meat, contact with soil (such as gardening), and travel outside of Europe, the United States, or Canada.
It is unlikely that you will acquire this rare disease from your cat. You are far more likely to become infected from eating undercooked meat. Giving up a cat because you are expecting a baby is an unnecessary step that does not decrease the risk of infection. More importantly, it is not fair to your cat.
What is toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by the tiny parasite, toxoplasma gondii. Domestic cats become infected by hunting and eating infected rodents or other prey. Your cat can also become infected if you feed it raw or undercooked meat.
Once a cat has been infected, it will defecate the parasite's eggs (called oocysts) into the environment for one to two weeks. The cat will then be immune to any future infection and will never be a source of infection again (will never excrete the parasite again).
When a newly infected cat excretes the oocysts outdoors or into its litter box, it takes at least 24 hours for the parasite to become capable of infecting anyone. Scooping the litter box every 12 to 24 hours removes the oocysts before they are dangerous.
How could I become infected?
Food animals, such as cattle and sheep, become infected while grazing in an area where cats have defecated or from eating contaminated feed. If not prepared and cooked properly, the meat from these animals is a source of potential infection, as is unpasteurized milk. Eating unwashed fruits or vegetables from a garden where a cat has defecated could also infect a human.
The litter box could potentially be a source of infection if you accidentally ingest fecal particles while scooping AND if your cat happens to be shedding oocysts during that small window of time. A cat will only shed the parasite for a couple of weeks out of its entire life.
What happens if I become infected?
Infection is usually self-limiting in a healthy person with a normal immune system. This means you would most likely get better on your own and your (flu-like) symptoms would be so mild you wouldn't even notice you're sick.
Unfortunately, when a pregnant woman becomes infected, her baby is at risk for miscarriage or potentially fatal birth defects. Immunocompromised people (including HIV+ individuals and cancer patients) could become very ill if exposed, so they should take the same precautions as pregnant women to avoid infection.
What precautions should I take to limit my risk during pregnancy?
1. Do not eat raw or undercooked meat or drink unpasteurized milk.
2. Do not eat unwashed fruits or vegetables or garden without wearing gloves.
3. Pregnant women should not scoop the litter box; if you must, wear gloves and a mask to prevent ingestion.
4. Have the litter box scooped every 12 to 24 hours to prevent the oocysts from becoming infective.
5. Do not feed your cat raw meat diets or allow it to go outdoors (where it will hunt).
6. Keep sandboxes covered to discourage cats from defecating in them.
7. Wash your hands before eating or touching your face.
Other Pet-Related Risks During Pregnancy
Pocket pets such as hamsters, guinea pigs and mice can carry a virus that causes the disease lymphocytic choriomeningitis. During pregnancy, you should let someone else clean the cages to avoid exposure.
If you own reptiles, birds or rodents, you might be at risk for samonellosis. Observe strict hygiene and routine hand-washing to decrease your risk.
If you keep livestock such as goats, sheep or cattle, there are bacterial diseases such as Q Fever (Coxiella burnetii Infection) that you should discuss with your doctor.
Ask your veterinarian (as well as your physician) if your pet's medication is safe to handle during pregnancy. Some medications can be absorbed through the skin.
For more, see petside's article on diseases you can catch from your pet.
- Filed Under: Health & Home