By Lorie Huston, DVM
Toxoplasmosis is almost always a concern for pregnant women. Some doctors even go so far as to advise a pregnant woman to get rid of any cats in the household. However, with the proper precautions, getting rid of the family cat is not necessary. It is also worth remembering that the family cat is not the only, or even the most likely, way for a pregnant woman to become exposed to toxoplasmosis.
What is Toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is caused by a protozoan (one-celled) parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii. The disease can be passed to people through contact with cat feces in the cat litter box. Exposure is also possible through contact with contaminated soil or raw meat.
Healthy, immunocompetent adults infected with toxoplasmosis typically suffer only a mild flu-like illness or no symptoms at all. However, an unborn child can become infected with toxoplasmosis via the placenta if the mother becomes infected with toxoplasmosis during her pregnancy. Dangers to an unborn child from toxoplasmosis include birth defects and fetal death.
A woman infected with toxoplasmosis prior to becoming pregnant does not pose a threat to her unborn child. Only women infected with the parasite during the course of their pregnancy place their baby at risk.
Precautions for Pregnant Women Worried About Toxoplasmosis
Fortunately, cats infected with toxoplasmosis shed the organism in their feces for only a short period of time. This means that most cat feces shed by pet cats that are housed indoors are not infected with the Toxoplasma parasite and the cat litter is not a real threat to a pregnant woman.
Still, taking precautions to avoid exposure to potential toxoplasmosis in the cat litter is a good idea for any pregnant woman.
- If possible, a pregnant woman should not change the cat litter box and should avoid contact with cat feces. Ideally, another household member should change the cat litter box.
- If a pregnant woman does find it necessary to change a cat litter box, she should wear gloves when doing so and wash her hands thoroughly afterward.
- The cat litter box should be cleaned on a daily basis. Toxoplasmosis cysts in the litter box require 48 hours to become infective.
- Pregnant women should wear gloves when gardening or working in soil or sand, as it may have been used by neighborhood cats and contain cat feces.
- Pregnant women should also avoid handling or ingesting raw meat. Wearing gloves while preparing meat and washing hands thoroughly after preparation can also help avoid infection.
- Any foodstuffs from the garden (fruits, vegetables, herbs, etc.) should be washed thoroughly before ingestion.
- Do not feed the cat raw meat during your pregnancy.
These simple precautions can help a pregnant woman avoid infection with toxoplasmosis from contact with cat feces or from the cat litter box; and can protect her unborn child from the dangers of toxoplasmosis.
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