Cats have an ominous reputation; one that is sadly undeserved. If you listen to old stories, you may be shocked to hear these friendly little creatures are supposedly responsible for crimes like “stealing a baby’s breath.” (See more about common cat myths.)
But Drew Weigner, DVM, a board-certified feline specialist and hospital director of The Cat Doctor clinic in greater Atlanta takes issue with the old wives’ tales. “A vaccinated, well-cared for, vetted, indoor cat is generally not a dangerous pet,” he says.
Cats, Babies and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
Mysterious crib death, now called Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), was once thought to be the fault of the cat. It was believed the pet smothered the infant while the child slept.
Until recently even the medical community blamed cats for SIDS. Published in 1905, the following explanation came from The British Journal of Children’s Diseases: “Cats, unlike dogs, evince a partiality for lying on the children’s chests in close proximity to their faces, and when that is the case there is a real danger of a fatal termination by suffocation.“
Doctors still don’t fully understand SIDS, but they are now attributing it to multiple other causes — not cats. According to the Mayo Clinic, these causes include:
- Brain abnormalities
- Low birth weight
- Respiratory infection
- Babies sleeping on their stomachs or sides
- Babies sleeping on soft surfaces
- Babies sleeping in the bed with their parents
Cats are no longer mentioned as a risk factor.
The Mayo Clinic also points out that the most likely victims of SIDS are:
- Babies between two and three months of age
- African American or Native American
- Babies born into families with a history of SIDS
- Babies born to mothers under the age of 20
- Babies whose mothers smoked or took drugs during pregnancy
- Babies whose mothers receive inadequate prenatal care
Despite the fact that cats have been exonerated for “stealing a baby’s breath,” Dr. Weigner says you should never leave any pet in a room alone with a baby. “It’s just common sense.”
Toxoplamosis, Pregnant Women and Cats
According to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) FAQ page on toxoplasmosis:
A single-celled parasite called toxoplasma gondii [T.gondii] causes a disease known as toxoplasmosis. While the parasite is found throughout the world, more than 60 million people in the United States may be infected with the toxoplasma parasite. Of those who are infected, very few have symptoms because a healthy person’s immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness. However, pregnant women and individuals who have compromised immune systems should be cautious; for them, a toxoplasma infection could cause serious health problems.
How can someone get toxoplasmosis?
Humans are unlikely to get toxoplasmosis by petting or holding a cat, according to the CDC. Humans can get toxoplasmosis through exposure to contaminated cat poop or by eating contaminated meat that has not been thoroughly cooked.
Cats are just one possible method of transmission of the T.gondii parasite to a person. The CDC says a person can become exposed to toxoplasmosis by:
- Eating contaminated meat, especially pork, lamb, or deer meat
- Eating undercooked meat
- Cutting contaminated meat and vegetables with the same knife
- Eating improperly washed fruits or vegetables
- Gardening in contaminated soil
How long does a cat have toxoplasmosis?
According to the CDC’s Toxoplasmosis: An Important Message for Cat Owners, “After a cat has been infected, it can shed the parasite for up to two weeks.” However, the CDC also notes that the eggs of the parasite take more than one day to hatch, so cleaning your litter box daily will reduce your chances of exposure.
Should I give up my cat?
The CDC notes that even pregnant women and individuals with compromised immune systems don’t need to give up their cats: “You do not have to give up your cat. Owning a cat does not mean you will be infected with the parasite. It is unlikely that you would be exposed to the parasite by touching an infected cat because cats usually do not carry the parasite on their fur.”
How can I reduce my chances of exposure to toxoplasmosis?
If you are pregnant, the CDC recommends these steps to reduce your chance of exposure:
- Have someone else clean the litter box, or wear rubber gloves when you change it
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after tending litter boxes
- Scoop daily
- Keep your cat inside the house and away from prey that could be infected with T.Gondii
- Don’t dig in dirt without garden gloves
- Wash your hands after gardening.
- Keep any outdoor sandboxes covered
According to the Mayo Clinic, “If you’ve already had toxoplasmosis before becoming pregnant, you generally can’t pass the infection to your baby.”