Why pregnant women should be careful around cats

To avoid toxoplasmosis infection, pregnant women should wear gloves while gardening in soil and stay away from feral cats.

Of all the things pregnant women have to ponder, cats aren’t usually one of them. But due to a serious condition, toxoplasmosis, more of them likely should.

Toxoplasmosis is a disease transmitted by cats, and it can cause pregnant women to miscarry or cause brain damage to the fetus. Though a serious disease, it is preventable and rare, according to microbiologist J.P. Dubey, a toxoplasmosis expert interviewed for the Tri-County Humane Society website.
"The possibility of transmission to human beings touching or caring for indoor cats is minimal to nonexistent, because an indoor cat on a commercial diet does not become infected with toxoplasmosis," he said. "Feces from outdoor and feral cats can still present a risk, though."

Dubey and other experts agree that pregnant women and their loved ones need to understand fully how toxoplasmosis infection occurs and how to take steps to protect women during pregnancy.

Here are few things expectant moms should know about toxoplasmosis and cats:

How does toxoplasmosis occur?

The infection follows a standard timeline, according to BabyCenter: a cat eats infected prey or drinks contaminated water or undercooked meat and is infected with the parasites, which form "oocysts" in the cat's stomach. For about three weeks, while showing no symptoms, the cat will excrete literally millions of oocysts per day, which can't be seen without a microscope. After 24 hours, these oocysts become infectious themselves and can survive in an infectious state for up to 18 months in soil, sand and litter, during which time, they can contaminate water, fruit and vegetables. From there, any warm-blooded species that comes into contact with the contaminated items.

Pregnant women can keep the family cat

While cat feces is a major source of toxoplasmosis, even the most cautious expectant parents don't need to get rid of the family cat, according to an article on Baby Center. The health site works with experts and a "baby medical board" that includes members from the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine.

The way toxoplasmosis is transmitted means an indoor cat who eats a commercial cat food and uses only its own litter box should not become infected. At the same time, pregnant women and their families still need to follow precautions to exclude any chance that other infected cat feces will transmit toxoplasmosis.

Safety precautions: remove any chance of getting infected

Toxoplasmosis can cause dire consequences in pregnant women, with the risk for severe problems for the fetus running 5-6 percent when a mother gets infected between weeks 10-24 of her pregnancy, according to American Pregnancy. Effects may include premature birth, low birth weight, fever, jaundice, retinal abnormalities, mental retardation, convulsions and brain calcification.

The healthy baby non-profit also noted that while the odds of the fetus being infected with toxoplasmosis increase during the third trimester, the risk of serious effects is actually lower, since more of the baby's development is already complete.

According to American Pregnancy, most health providers routinely screen for toxoplasmosis immunity pre-pregnancy or on the first pre-natal visit. But they also recommend women take precautions to avoid toxoplasmosis throughout pregnancy.

Dubey and BabyCenter experts suggest thaking the following precautions constantly and consistently:

Toxoplasmosis precautions for pregnant women who live with a cat:

  • Have someone who's not pregnant scoop the litter box and do it daily to take advantage of the 24 hour period before the oocysts become infectious.
  • Have that same someone else change the kitty litter often, using scalding water to wash the box.
  • When there's no other option and you must scoop the litter yourself, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands well when finished. Experts also suggest wearing a mask to protect against airborne oocysts near the litter.
  • To keep your cat from geting infected while you're pregnant, feed it only commercially-prepared cat food or well-cooked table scraps. Don't let it eat any raw or undercooked meat.
  • Keep the cat indoors so it won't hunt down potentially infected prey like mice or birds.
  • Keep the kitty off of kitchen counters and dining surfaces.
  • To combat even the very unlikely chance your cat has parasites in its fur, wash your hands with soap and water after petting and before eating.

Toxoplasmosis precautions for all pregnant women, including those who don't already have a cat:

  • Don't get a new kitten or cat until after you deliver.
  • Don't play with stray cats or kittens.
  • Avoid touching or stepping in cat feces outdoors.
  • Always wear clean rubber gloves while gardening in soil that may be contaminated by outdoor cats.
  • Don't drink water from outdoor sources if there's any chance it could be contaminated by contact with oocysts.
  • When eating out, make sure meat is cooked thoroughly.