Last year, my wife received a frantic message from an expectant friend in Louisiana. “Like always”, she wrote, “ I have a vet question, but this one has more to do with pregnancy. A few people have been making me feel terrible, saying I could catch toxoplasmosis from my cats and hurt my baby. I have probably handled thousands of cats in my life and have cleaned enough cat feces to last a lifetime, but during my entire pregnancy, hubby has cleaned the litter box. My doctor told me not to worry, but can you catch it from the kitties digging in the litter? Do they carry it on their paws? I wish I could find more information, but most sights tell you to get rid of you cat or risk having a mentally disabled child. Our shelter puts down cats like crazy. It really breaks my heart.”
Toxoplasmosis is real, but easily preventable. Let’s set the record straight on this widely misunderstood disease.
What is toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by the parasite toxoplasma gondii (T.gondii). The disease carries minimal risk to healthy adults, and the Center for Disease Control estimates that roughly 50% of adults in the United States are already carrying the parasite with no ill effects. That being said, if an unborn baby contracts the disease through the placenta of a newly infected mother, miscarriage or birth defects can occur. While it is wise for pregnant women to be concerned about their cats, humans are far more likely to to become infected by eating or handling raw or undercooked meat and seafood. Other common culprits for toxoplasmosis infection include unpasteurized dairy products, unwashed, raw fruits and vegetables, and gardening without gloves.
So why do cats get such a bad rap?
While many warm-blooded animals can become infected with T.gondii, cats are the only ones who pass the parasite through their stools. Outdoor cats are most commonly infected by hunting and eating mice, birds, rats, and other small prey animals that carry T.gondii. The disease is very rare in exclusively indoor cats, and those few cases nearly always stem from infected cats eating raw meat. Since the parasite is spread through the cat’s stool, and litter boxes tend to kept indoors, many pregnant women are told (incorrectly) to either get rid of the cat, or make the cat live outdoors. Ironically, forcing a cat to live outdoors dramatically increases her chances of bringing toxoplasmosis into the owner’s environment! These myths and misconceptions lead thousands of families to surrender their cats to shelters every year.
How can we make sure everyone stays safe?
- Husbands, this is our time to shine! Be thankful you’re not dealing with morning sickness and wild food cravings and assign yourself to potty patrol! In other words, clean the litter box. T.gondii does not become infectious until it has been out of the cat’s body for one to five days. So while you don’t have to follow Kitty around with a pooper scooper, you do need to make sure the box is cleaned every day. Dispose of soiled litter in sealed plastic bags and throw the bags in outdoor trash bins. Wash your hands thoroughly when you are finished.
-Moms, if no one can do this for you, clean Kitty’s litter box wearing disposable gloves and a surgical mask. This is not ideal, so don’t be shy about asking others to give you a hand.
- Keep cats indoors. There are so many reasons to do this anyway. Now is the perfect time to make this change.
- Do not feed Kitty any raw or undercooked meat.
- Keep Kitty off the countertop or any other food preparation surfaces. Think it’s impossible? Take large strips of packing tape and create loops with the sticky side exposed. Place the loops on the countertop. After several landings on this unpleasant, gooey surface, Kitty will likely lose interest.
-Do not handle stray cats or kittens. If you bring any new cats into your home during your pregnancy, stray or otherwise, have your veterinarian run a simple blood test to screen for toxoplasmosis. If the newbie tests positive, don’t panic. A course of antibiotics will win the day.
-If you garden, wear gloves. While your cats may not roam freely outdoors, there are thousands in South Florida who do. Gardens make very attractive litter boxes, and T.gondii loves our warm, moist soil. Do not touch your face while gardening, and wash up thoroughly when finished.
-Keep children’s sandboxes covered.
-Don’t rely on Dr.Google. As our friend in Louisiana discovered, the internet is chock full of junk science and misinformation. If you are worried, take Kitty to your vet for testing. Results are back in 24 hours, and the test itself should not cost more than $50. The test is available for humans as well, and should be covered by insurance.
Pets are a part of the family, and should always remain so. With just a few simple precautions, we can be certain that our changing families will still be our cats’ forever families!