During a pre-natal appointment with your healthcare provider, you may be asked if you have a cat.
If this is your first pregnancy, you may wonder why a midwife or doctor would ask you about what pets you have.
For those who do have a cat, you’ll likely be informed about toxoplasmosis.
Toxoplasmosis is an infection humans can contract from a microscopic parasite – toxoplasma gondii.
For most people that acquire this infection, their immune system is able to handle it, and it’s often a mild or asymptomatic infection.
During pregnancy, however, this infection can be more serious, as it can pass via the placenta to your unborn baby.
Around 15% of childbearing aged women are immune to toxoplasmosis.
For these women, their unborn babies are likely protected from contracting this infection.
But what about babies whose mothers aren’t immune to toxoplasmosis? Here are 5 things you need to know about toxoplasmosis and pregnancy:
#1: Toxoplasmosis Can Be Spread By Cats
Cats are known to bring unpleasant gifts back to their owners, such as rodents or birds they have killed. When a cat eats an animal that is infected with toxoplasma gondii parasites, it pass through to their faeces. Cats and kittens can shed millions of these microscopic parasites for up to three weeks after they are infected.
While mature cats can contract toxoplasmosis, they are less likely than younger cats to contract and spread the parasites.
While indoor cats use litter boxes to contain their faeces, outdoor cats use garden soil and sandboxes for elimination. Gardening, unwashed produce and playing in a contaminated sand box are ways you might be exposed, in addition to cat litter boxes.
#2: You Don’t Need To Get Rid Of Your Cat
While cats can spread toxoplasmosis, petting or being near your cat is not how you contract the illness.
In order to contract toxoplasmosis, you need to come into contact with contaminated faeces, then touch your eyes, mouth, nose or other opening to your body (such as a open sore or cut).
Make sure you use caution when gardening. Wear gardening gloves and be conscious of touching your face before washing your hands. Always wash your hands after gardening or putting your hands in a sandbox, and be sure to avoid contact with your face before washing.
Many healthcare providers recommend making another person responsible for emptying your cat’s litter box. If you’re unable to get someone else to do it, use caution when cleaning the box. Use gloves if possible, immediately wash your hands and be very conscious not to touch your face while handling the box, liter or faeces. Change the litter box daily, as the parasite doesn’t become infectious until 1 to 5 days after shedding in the cat’s feces.
If possible, keep your cat indoors, and feed your pet well cooked meat. If your cat eats rodents, birds or undercooked meat, their risk of contracting toxoplasmosis increases.
While you don’t need to get rid of your cat, it’s not advised to get a new cat during your pregnancy.
#3: Toxoplasmosis Can Be Contracted From Other Sources
While cats play a big role in spreading toxoplasmosis, you can contract toxoplasmosis from certain foods.
Here are ways to reduce your risk of exposure from food sources:
- Be sure to cook whole cuts of meat to at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit (63 degrees Celsius)
- Cook ground meats to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71 degrees Celsius)
- Poultry (ground or whole) should be cooked to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius)
- Freeze meat for several days at sub-zero temperatures before cooking to reduce the risk of infection
- Thoroughly wash and/or peel fruits and vegetables
- Wash cutting boards, counters and utensils that come into contact with raw or undercooked meat and unwashed fruits and vegetables
#4: Treatment Is Available If You Contract Toxoplasmosis
The saying is true, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The best way to protect yourself and your unborn baby is to take precautions in order to avoid exposure and infection. However, sometimes even with prevention, there can be simple slip ups, and infection occurs. If you become infected, there are medications available. You and your unborn baby will be monitored to ensure you’re both well.
In some situations, even with treatment, toxoplasmosis can harm babies, and they may be born infected with toxoplasmosis. In the US, it’s estimated around 400-4000 babies are born with a toxoplasmosis infection every year. Symptoms may be mild or asymptomatic, however in severe cases, stillbirth, brain damage and other devastating effects occur.
For this reason, it’s important to take precautions seriously, while understanding that the chance of infection is low. You don’t need to be overly concerned or immediately rehome your cat — you just need to be cautious.
#5: You Can Breastfeed If You Had Or Contract Toxoplasmosis
Among babies of healthy women, the possibility of toxoplasmosis infection being contracted via breast milk is not likely.
Some studies have found an association between toxoplasmosis and infants who consumed unpasteurized goat milk, but there are no studies showing the parasite toxoplasma gondii is transmitted via breast milk.
In theory, a woman with a bleeding nipple or breast inflammation within the several weeks immediately following acute toxoplasmosis (when the parasite is still circulating her bloodstream) could transmit the parasites to her infant. However, there are no cases or studies documenting this occurring, meaning the likelihood of human milk transmission is very small.
Due to the lack of evidence of possible transmission via breast milk, there’s no evidence to suggest a woman shouldn’t breastfeed if she has toxoplasmosis.
While toxoplasmosis is a real concern, basic hygiene and proper food preparation offer a sufficient precaution to help protect you and your unborn baby. There’s little reason to rehome your cat, in order to protect yourself from infection.