Medical doctors and veterinarians have a bit of a love/hate relationship. Vets have a saying, "real doctors treat more than one species." I wouldn’t be surprised if our colleagues on the human medicine side of things have a similar adage, but I’m not privy to it.
One of the bones that I have to pick with some of the docs out there is their misunderstanding of the disease toxoplasmosis. How many of you have been told that you needed to "get rid" of your cats while you were pregnant, or at the very least have your cats tested for toxoplasmosis?
These recommendations drive me absolutely crazy! Here’s why.
First of all, a bit of background. Toxoplasmosis is caused by a microscopic parasite named Toxoplasma gondii. Cats generally pick up these organisms when they hunt and eat infected prey. Healthy cats rarely get sick themselves from the parasite, but when they are infected for the first time, they can shed it in their feces. This is what doctors and many pregnant women worry about. Why? Because if a pregnant woman becomes infected with Toxoplasma for the first time while she is pregnant, she may miscarry or give birth to a child who suffers from birth defects.
Now on to why I have such a burr under my saddle about doctors and toxo. To recommend that a pregnant woman get rid of her cat(s) is taking the easy way out. It might take a bit of effort and time for a doctor to explain the real risks of toxoplasmosis and how to reduce them, but that is exactly what needs to be done to protect babies as well as prevent unnecessary suffering for mothers, families, and family pets.
These are the facts:
- People become infected with toxo when they inadvertently eat the parasite. The risk of contracting toxoplasmosis from ingesting cat feces is much lower than it is from handling and eating undercooked pork. So if doctors are going to counsel that pregnant women "get rid" of anything, it should actually be pig meat, not their pet cats.
- If anybody is going to be tested for toxo, it should be the pregnant woman, not the cat. A cat will come up positive if it has been exposed to the parasite at any point in its life, but it only poses a risk if it is shedding the parasite in its feces, which generally occurs for a very short period. Therefore, a positive feline test is meaningless in this situation. Testing a pregnant woman, on the other hand, can be helpful. If her test is positive already, perfect. She has been infected in the past and even if she is exposed again during her pregnancy her unborn child will not be affected. If she is negative, then she should take precautions.
Pregnant women can protect themselves and their babies from toxoplasmosis by following five simple rules:
- Get somebody else in the house to clean out the litter box (my husband took over when I was pregnant and I’ve managed never to take back that chore -- yippee!)
- If a pregnant woman does have to clean out the litter boxes, she should scoop them at least once daily. The parasite must spend 24 to 48 hours outside of the cat’s body before it is capable of causing an infection, so frequently cleaning the box will virtually eliminate the chances of disease transmission.
- Wear gloves when cleaning out litter boxes or handling potentially contaminated soils (e.g., when gardening) or pork and wash hands thoroughly afterwards.
- Thoroughly cook any food containing meat derived from pigs before eating it.
- Keep cats indoors to reduce, though not eliminate, the chances of them eating infected prey.
Having children is life-altering enough. Pregnant women don’t need the additional stress of making a false choice between the health of their babies and the welfare of their pets.
Dr. Jennifer Coates