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Pregnant Women and Cats – Toxoplasmosis Facts & Advice

A cat sitting on the lap of a pregnant woman on a couch

If you’re recently pregnant or planning to become pregnant, there’s probably a lot you’re being told you can and cannot do – including keeping your pet cat. In fact, years ago this was a common reason women would relinquish cats to shelters. Fear not! The Center for Disease Control does not recommend you give up your cat. Pregnant women and cats do indeed have to take certain precautions, but with a bit of extra planning and care many women go through completely healthy pregnancies without giving up their beloved feline family members.

What do cats have to do with pregnant women?

It wasn’t long ago that obstetricians would recommend pregnant women give up their cats. However, this is widely an outdated mode of thinking.

Cats, especially those that go outside, can be carriers of a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii). While usually harmless to the cat and most humans, the parasite is shed in the feces of an infected cat and can pass to your unborn child. While this sounds scary, we’re here to assure you that no, you and your cat don’t have to part ways but yes, you ARE excused from litter box duty.

What is toxoplasmosis?

Toxoplasmosis is caused by a single-celled parasite found throughout the world. Cats play an important role in its lifecycle. They become infected by eating infected small mammals or birds. Cats (both wild and domestic) are the only species that will then pass the parasite’s microscopic oocysts in their feces. Other animals become infected themselves if they ingest oocysts that cats have shed from feces into the environment, or if they eat another infected animal.

How do people get toxoplasmosis?

People are most often exposed by unintentionally touching their mouth after gardening in contaminated soil or by eating vegetables and fruit that have not been washed, peeled, or cooked. People can also contract it by eating undercooked meat from another animal that is already infected.

While infection with T. gondii is relatively common, serious illness is actually rare because a healthy human immune system usually prevents this. However, pregnant and immunocompromised people are at a greater risk from Toxoplasma. A woman who contracts T. gondii could pass the parasite onto her baby, resulting in eye or brain damage at birth or later in life. So, it’s not surprising that doctors explain this when discussing other risks pregnant women need to consider.

Are you likely to contract toxoplasmosis from your pet cat?

Toxoplasma oocysts don’t become infective for 48-72 hours. By cleaning a cat’s litter box every day, cat guardians likely won’t come in contact with infective feces. Healthy cats groom themselves fastidiously, so it’s not likely that oocysts would remain on their fur for long enough to become a risk to someone petting them. Indoor pet cats have less of a chance of being exposed at all from eating an infected animal. If a cat becomes infected, they will only shed oocysts for up to two weeks. To be infected by a pet cat, a perfect storm of circumstances must coincide. Nonetheless, simple and sensible precautions should be taken, which we explain below.

Can I test my cat for toxoplasmosis?

Yes! Your veterinarian can perform a blood test for the two types of antibodies to toxoplasmosis. One antibody indicates your cat was exposed in the past, is probably now immune and not shedding oocysts. The presence of a different antibody indicates your cat has an active infection and could be shedding oocysts.

Whether your cat is immune, actively shedding or has no antibodies to the parasite, it’s a good idea to still maintain common-sense precautions for cleanliness and hygiene. Keep in mind that a negative cat could still be exposed to the parasite in the course of your pregnancy, so taking steps to reduce both your and your cat’s potential exposure is recommended.

So how do I keep myself and my unborn child safe from toxoplasmosis?

Here are 7 helpful tips to reduce your risk of exposure to toxoplasma if you are pregnant.

  1. Don’t eat raw or undercooked meat, and don’t feed it to your pets. Feed your cat a  complete and balanced fully cooked diet instead.
  2. Ask someone else in your household to clean your cat’s litter box and make sure it’s cleaned every day. If you absolutely must take on this task, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands afterward.
  3. Wear gloves while gardening and wash your hands thoroughly afterward.
  4. Thoroughly scrub vegetables. Peel vegetables that you plan to eat raw and cook garden vegetables.
  5. Be sure to wash kitchen utensils that you use to peel and chop – don’t just rinse them off and put them away.
  6. If you have an outdoor sand play box, keep it covered so neighborhood cats aren’t tempted to use it as a litter box.
  7. Keep your cat safely indoors to prevent your cat from being exposed at all. If you have a mouse problem, plug holes where they are creeping indoors, so your cat doesn’t hunt and eat them.

Reduce your worry about toxoplasmosis by asking for a helping hand from family members, taking common sense precautions, and prioritizing everyday cleanliness. You’ll soon be celebrating the birth of your child, and you can look forward to your child experiencing the joy of having your beloved cat as a companion.

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