Cats pose a special risk to pregnant women. Cats can carry the toxoplasmosis parasite which can be spread by contact with their feces or used cat litter. This parasite-borne disease can cause serious flu-like symptoms and, in extreme cases, seizures and neurological problems. In the worst cases, this condition can be passed down from mother to child in a condition known as congenital toxoplasmosis.
The risk of contracting toxoplasmosis from cats is high enough that some doctors recommend removing cats entirely from the home during the pregnancy. Of course, many people care deeply for their cats and would be devastated by the loss of their companion. With the right precautions, the risk of contracting toxoplasmosis from your cat can be minimized
A word of note: Cats are not the only way that women can be exposed to the toxoplasmosis parasite. If you have an indoor cat that does not hunt or eat raw meat, then the chances of contracting it are slim. You actually are more likely to get toxoplasmosis from eating unwashed vegetables or undercooked meat than you are from your housecat.
What is Toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is a condition caused by the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii. The parasite can be passed to individuals by contact with cat feces or dirty cat litter. In general, toxoplasmosis is a mild condition and may cause mild to moderate flu-like symptoms including fever, nausea and muscle weakness.
Pregnant women carry the risk of transmitting the toxoplasmosis parasite to their unborn child thorugh their blood and placenta. While not very dangerous in immunocompetent individuals, toxoplasmosis can cause serious pregnancy complications and result in miscarriages and stillbirths. The risk of your baby becoming infected is greatest in the third trimester and the least during the first trimester, though earlier infection can have more drastic effects. These effects can take a very long time to manifest and may even onset as late as 13-14 years old.
What is the risk of getting toxoplasmosis from my cat?
Its actually a rather small risk. You are more likely to get toxoplasmosis from dirty vegetables or contaminated meat. Most cats who pick up the parasite shed infectious oocysts for only a few days. What’s more, these oocysts only become infectious after about 48 hours so cleaning the litter box daily can prevent transmission. Washing your hands before and after cleaning the litterbox also prevents transmission. The risks fo getting toxoplasmosis from your cat are even smaller if it is an indoor cat and you do not feed it raw meat.
Tips to prevent exposure
That being said, a small risk is still a risk nonetheless. Some precautions are a good idea for pregnant women:
– Pregnant women should not clean the litter box if possible. Try to get another household member to do so.
– If a pregnant woman finds herself having to clean the litter box, she should wear gloves and thoroughly wash her hands before and after, preferably cleaning a healthier litter option.
– The cat litter box should be cleaned daily. Toxoplasma oocysts only become infectious after a certain period of time so regularly cleaning the box gets rid of most the risk of exposure.
– Pregnant women should avoid gardening and avoid handling and consuming raw meat.
– Any food items from the garden should be washed thoroughly and cooked before eating.
– Keep your cat away from raw meat and do not let it hunt during your pregnancy
– Keep a cover over the litterbox
– Regularly clean all surfaces your cat comes into contact with. Bits of cat litter that carry the parasite can cling to their feet and be tracked around the house.
What to do if you are exposed
It can be difficult to tell if you have been exposed to the toxoplasma parasite because symptoms can take a while to pop up. That is why it is a good idea to routinely get tested over the course of your pregnancy. In the case of an exposure, the sooner it is caught the better the long term prognosis will be.
If you believe you might have been exposed to the parasite or are showing symptoms of toxoplasmosis, see a doctor immediately. Prompt medical attention can catch the disease in its early stages and mitigate the worst of the effects.