During a prenatal appointment with your healthcare provider, you might be surprised to be asked whether you have a cat.
And if you do have a cat, you’ll be informed about toxoplasmosis.
There are so many things we’re told to avoid or to look out for when we’re pregnant.
Then we find out our gorgeous, cuddly kitty could be a problem.
Do I need to get rid of my cat during pregnancy?
No, you definitely don’t need to rehome Tiddles.
Some women report being told by well-meaning individuals they should get rid of their cats to avoid toxoplasmosis infection.
This is absolutely untrue: you do not need to get rid of your cat simply because you’re pregnant.
Keep reading to find out how to keep you and your baby safe from this potentially nasty infection.
What is toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is a zoonotic infection humans can contract from a microscopic parasite – toxoplasma gondii. You can catch it from the poo of infected cats or from raw meat.
Toxoplasmosis is a relatively common infection. It’s thought as many as half of the population will contract it at some point during their lifetime.
In most people who acquire this infection, the immune system can handle it. However, those with a compromised or weakened immune system, and pregnant women, can have a tougher time with this infection.
The infection cannot be spread from person to person, although mother to baby transmission is possible during pregnancy. Babies with congenital toxoplasmosis (that means they were born with the infection) generally don’t look sick at birth.
Toxoplasmosis in pregnancy – symptoms
Toxoplasma infection is often mild or asymptomatic (meaning it has no symptoms). Most people do not realize they have had a toxoplasma infection.
Some suffer from long-term symptoms, much like those of glandular fever.
Others suffer from flu-like symptoms, including:
- Aching muscles
- Sore throat
- Swollen glands
During pregnancy, however, toxoplasma infection can be more serious, as it can pass via the placenta to your unborn baby. A baby can have congenital toxoplasmosis at birth.
The risk of complications for your baby means you should contact your healthcare provider if you think you could be at risk of contracting this infection.
Pregnancy and toxoplasmosis
Around 15% of women of childbearing age are immune to toxoplasmosis. Once you’ve had the infection, you have lifelong immunity to it.
You can ask your healthcare provider for a blood test to determine whether you are already immune to Toxoplasma infection.
For these women, their unborn babies are probably protected from contracting the infection.
But what about babies whose mothers aren’t immune to toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis can pose a risk to your baby if you catch it during pregnancy or a few weeks before you conceive.
How common is it to get toxoplasmosis while pregnant?
It’s uncommon for pregnant women to suffer from toxoplasmosis during pregnancy, although it can happen.
There are steps you can take to protect yourself and your baby. However, the general risk of catching this condition is thought to be low.
Even if you do become infected with toxoplasmosis during pregnancy, the infection is unlikely to be passed along to your baby.
What can toxoplasmosis do to an unborn baby?
Toxoplasmosis is a rare but potentially serious condition, and that is why you should take steps to reduce your risk of catching it during pregnancy.
Infection during early pregnancy carries the highest risk of serious complications.
If you are infected later in your pregnancy, the infection is more likely to pass to your baby, but any potential complications will be less severe.
Most babies with congenital toxoplasmosis appear healthy at birth, but there is a risk they will develop eye damage in childhood.
Does toxoplasmosis cause miscarriage?
Women who catch toxoplasmosis for the first time during pregnancy will usually be ok.
However, there is a small risk that the infection could cause serious complications, including miscarriage, stillbirth, and disabilities due to congenital toxoplasmosis.
It’s important to remember that the risk of these complications remains very low.
Should I get tested for toxoplasmosis during pregnancy?
During your prenatal visits, your midwife will perform blood tests to check for various things, including your blood type and whether you are suffering from any infectious diseases.
If you’d like to know whether or not you are already immune to this infection, you can ask your midwife to test your sample for toxoplasmosis immunity.
If you think you have contracted toxoplasmosis during pregnancy, you can have blood tests to find out for sure.
The test needs to be performed at least three weeks after you were infected, however, as that’s how long it takes the body to create antibodies that will show up on the blood test.
Toxoplasmosis in pregnancy risks
The risks of contracting toxoplasmosis during pregnancy vary, depending on when you pick up the infection.
Some stages of pregnancy are riskier than others. The later you are in the pregnancy, the higher the chance of mother-to-baby transmission. However, the risk of complications is generally higher earlier in the pregnancy.
Toxoplasmosis before conception
If you were infected shortly before conception, there is a 1% chance the infection will be passed along to the baby. If this happens, there is a risk of miscarriage.
Toxoplasmosis in the first trimester
If you catch the infection during the first trimester, there is a 10-15% chance the infection will be passed to the baby.
Babies infected during the first trimester face an increased risk of miscarriage or being born with severe symptoms and birth defects, including water on the brain.
Toxoplasmosis in the second trimester
If you were infected during the second trimester, there is a 25% risk of mother-to-child transmission.
The baby could potentially suffer from birth defects or severe symptoms at birth, but the miscarriage risk is reduced at this stage in the pregnancy.
Toxoplasmosis in the third trimester
Catching the infection during the last trimester is associated with a high risk of transmission (as high as 70-80%), but any problems are likely to be less severe.
Some babies born with congenital toxoplasmosis will develop eye problems in later life, although they appear healthy at birth.
Testing the baby for toxoplasmosis during pregnancy
If you’ve been infected with toxoplasmosis, it’s possible to determine whether the infection has spread to your unborn baby.
Your doctor might suggest amniocentesis (removing amniotic fluid for testing) or cordocentesis (the collection of your baby’s blood from the umbilical cord).
However, these tests won’t tell you whether there are any complications from the condition. You will need to speak to your healthcare provider about the benefits and risks of the tests. In addition, the tests carry a 0.5-1% risk of a miscarriage.
A detailed ultrasound scan can be performed to check your baby’s development. It’s important to remember, though, that scans can be reassuring, but they don’t rule out the chance an infection caused problems for your baby’s development.
How is toxoplasma infection treated during pregnancy?
Toxoplasmosis can be treated during pregnancy with a prescription antibiotic called spiramycin. Spiramycin reduces the risk of a maternal infection being passed to your baby.
If the baby is already infected, you might be prescribed pyrimethamine and sulphadiazine. These strong antibiotics can limit any damage to your baby the infection caused. However, they can’t undo any damage that has already been done.
Toxoplasmosis can be spread by infected cat poo
Cats bring unpleasant gifts back to their owners, such as rodents or birds they have killed.
When a cat eats an animal infected with toxoplasma gondii parasites, they pass through to the cat’s feces.
Cats and kittens with T. gondii infection can shed millions of these microscopic parasites for up to three weeks after they are infected.
Although mature cats can contract toxoplasmosis, they’re less likely than younger cats to contract and spread the parasites.
Indoor cats use litter boxes to contain their feces, but outdoor cats use garden soil and sandboxes for elimination.
In addition to contact with cat litter boxes, gardening, handling unwashed produce, and playing in a contaminated sandbox are ways you might be exposed.
Should I worry about toxoplasmosis during pregnancy?
Given the chance of contracting toxoplasmosis is quite small, you shouldn’t worry too much.
However, it’s important to take steps to keep yourself and your baby safe. You should protect yourself and your baby, but you don’t need to add toxoplasmosis to your list of things to worry about during pregnancy.
If you have a cat, you should wear gloves when changing the litter tray, just in case the cat has a T. gondii infection. Even better, ask someone else to do it for you.
You should also avoid undercooked or cured meats, because these carry a risk of infection.
You don’t need to get rid of your cat
Although cats can spread toxoplasmosis, petting or being near your cat is not how you contract the illness.
To contract toxoplasmosis, you need to come into contact with contaminated cat feces, then touch your eyes, mouth, nose, or other openings to your body (such as an open sore or cut). This is how Toxoplasma gondii is spread.
How to avoid contracting toxoplasmosis during pregnancy
The following tips might help reduce your risk of contracting toxoplasmosis during pregnancy:
Make sure you use caution.
Wear gloves when gardening, in case there are feces infected with toxoplasma gondii from stray cats hiding among your flowerbeds.
Always wash your hands after gardening or putting your hands in a sandbox, and be sure to avoid contact with your face before washing your hands.
When changing the litter tray
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.
Wear gloves when changing the litter box, immediately wash your hands, and be very conscious not to touch your face while handling the box, cat litter, or feces.
Change the litter box daily, as the parasite doesn’t become infectious until 1 to 5 days after shedding in the infected cat feces.
If possible, keep your cat indoors, and only feed your pet well-cooked meat or canned cat food.
If your cat eats rodents, birds, or undercooked meat, the risk of contracting toxoplasmosis increases.
Although you don’t need to get rid of your cat, it’s not advised to get a new cat during your pregnancy, in case of a recent infection.
Toxoplasmosis can be contracted from raw or undercooked meat and other food sources
Cats play a big role in spreading toxoplasmosis, but you can contract toxoplasmosis from eating or handling certain foods:
- Eating raw or undercooked meat
- Handling raw meat
- Raw cured meat, such as Parma ham or salami
- Unwashed vegetables and fruit
- Unpasteurized goats’ milk.
Keeping yourself safe when it comes to food
Here are ways to reduce your risk of exposure from food sources:
- Avoid raw or undercooked meat
- Use gloves when preparing raw meat
- 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
You should avoid lambing during pregnancy
Toxoplasmosis is a common infection amongst sheep. For this reason, pregnant women are advised to avoid lambing if they’re involved in farming, veterinary services, or if they keep sheep.
Infected matter can splash into your eyes or open cuts while lambing; this could infect you with toxoplasmosis.
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 to avoid exposure and infection.
However, even with prevention, there can sometimes be simple slip-ups, and infection occurs.
If you become infected, there are medications available.
Your healthcare provider will monitor you and your baby if you become infected
Your doctor will monitor you and your unborn baby to ensure you’re both well.
In some situations, even with treatment, toxoplasmosis can harm babies, and they could be born infected with toxoplasmosis.
Symptoms might be mild or the infection could be asymptomatic; in severe cases, however, stillbirth, brain damage, and other devastating effects could result.
For this reason, it’s important to take precautions seriously while understanding 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.
You can breastfeed if you’ve had or contract toxoplasmosis
Among babies of healthy women, the possibility of toxoplasmosis infection being contracted via breast milk isn’t likely.
Some studies have found an association between toxoplasmosis and infants who consumed unpasteurized goat milk.
Can toxoplasmosis be spread by breastfeeding?
You can rest assured – 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 Toxoplasma infection (when the parasite is still circulating her bloodstream) could transmit the parasites to her infant.
However, there are no cases or studies to document this, which means the likelihood of transmission from human milk is very small.
Due to the lack of evidence of possible transmission via breast milk, there’s no reason to suggest a woman shouldn’t breastfeed if she has toxoplasmosis.
Although toxoplasmosis is a real concern, following basic hygiene and ensuring proper food preparation are sufficient precautions to protect you and your unborn baby.
Has anyone had a baby born with toxoplasmosis?
If you’re infected with toxoplasmosis in the later stages of your pregnancy, it’s possible your baby could be born with the condition.
According to the NHS, only 1 in 10,000 babies is born with toxoplasmosis in the UK. However, in the US, it’s estimated around 400-4,000 babies are born with a toxoplasmosis infection every year.
Speak to your healthcare provider for advice if you’re worried about the impact of toxoplasmosis on your developing baby.
Do I need to worry about toxoplasmosis after the birth?
Toxoplasmosis is a risk during pregnancy but is otherwise a common infection that many people don’t realize they have contracted.
Once your baby starts moving, you will need to figure out how to keep him away from the litter tray, for the sake of hygiene, but you don’t need to be overly paranoid about toxoplasmosis anymore.
Be sure to check out Pets and Your New Baby – 6 Tips To Prepare Your Pet for helpful tips.
Worried about toxoplasmosis in pregnancy
Pregnancy can be a daunting time. Everywhere you look, there is advice and warnings, and rules about what to do during pregnancy. It’s no wonder you’re feeling overwhelmed!
Try to remember that all of this pregnancy advice is just that – advice.
If you’re struggling to figure out which are hard and fast rules and which are gentle nudges, speak to your healthcare provider for advice.
Although you should remain vigilant about keeping yourself and your baby safe during pregnancy, you shouldn’t be working yourself into a frenzied panic about it.
It’s important to keep things in perspective.
Yes, toxoplasmosis is a risk, but as long as you are aware of toxoplasmosis prevention and you take steps to avoid becoming infected, you’re doing all you can.