If you’re pregnant, you’ve likely heard of toxoplasmosis and heard that you can catch it from cats. But what is toxoplasmosis, and how can it be avoided during pregnancy?
Toxoplasmosis is one of the most common food-borne illnesses in the world. It’s estimated that up to 80 percent of people in some regions are infected by the Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) organism. The vast majority of infected people don’t have symptoms.
Cats are an important source of T. gondii infection. The organism is carried by cats and shed in their feces, which spreads it to other animals. In humans, infection usually occurs through eating infected meats, fruits, or vegetables or through direct contact with the organisms after handling soil, sand, or cat litter that contains eggs. Women who are infected during pregnancy usually do not have symptoms or may have nonspecific symptoms, such as fever, fatigue, sore throat, rash, or swollen lymph glands.
Toxoplasmosis infection can be passed from a pregnant woman to her baby either through the placenta or during vaginal birth. It is estimated that this disease is passed to the fetus in 1 in 1,000-10,000 live births, but a majority of babies have no symptoms. The severity of the disease in the infant depends on when the mother is infected. About 65 percent of babies born to mothers who were infected in the third trimester have no symptoms. Other babies who were exposed in the mother’s first or second trimester have a range of symptoms, including rash, swollen lymph glands, jaundice, eye and vision problems, reduced birth weight, low number of blood platelets, enlarged liver or spleen, small head, and even seizures. Most infants with fetal infection usually have no symptoms at birth but vision problems, learning disabilities, or mental retardation can become apparent within the first few months or years of life. Children can also be infected after birth, but children with healthy immune systems rarely have symptoms.
Although it’s not necessary to find a new home for your cat, pregnant women should take precautions to avoid infection during the pregnancies. Simple steps include:
- Avoid contact with cat litter, and do not clean the litter box. If you must, wear gloves and thoroughly wash your hands afterward. Also if you must, change the litter daily as the eggs are not infectious within the first day after they are excreted by the cat.
- When cooking, ensure no cross-contamination with uncooked meat occurs. Wash all countertops, cutting boards, and knives thoroughly.
- Do not consume undercooked or raw meat.
- Wear gloves while gardening.
- Feed your cat store-bought cat food, and not meat or table scraps.
- The CDC recommends that you keep indoor cats indoors, so they can’t become infected from small rodents they encounter outdoors.
- Pregnant women should have someone else clean the cat’s litter box, or at least wear gloves and wash their hands thoroughly.
- Feed your cat store-bought food, and keep indoor cats indoors.
- Toxoplasmosis is spread by the T. gondii organism.
- You don’t have to find a new home for your cat if you’re pregnant.