If you are expecting a baby, you have probably heard of toxoplasmosis. Since the disease can be transmitted via contact with cat feces, many pregnant women are told to lower their risk by giving away their cat or by putting their cat outside. Neither is necessary. Rather than resorting to extreme and unnecessary measures, taking the time to gain a better understanding of toxoplasmosis as well as sensible prevention methods can allay fears of contracting congenital toxoplasmosis from your companion.
What is Toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a microscopic parasite called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii). Many warm-blooded animals, including livestock, birds, humans, and most pets, can become infected. Infection with the parasite is relatively common (over 60 million people in the U.S. carry the parasite), although the actual disease is rare. In humans, toxoplasmosis can cause severe illness in infants infected before birth or in people with a weakened immune system.
It is very unlikely that your cat will give you toxoplasmosis. According the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you have a much higher likelihood of contracting the disease from eating raw meat or from gardening.
There are three ways that people become infected with T. gondii:
- Eating food, drinking water, or accidentally swallowing soil contaminated with infected cat feces. For example, if you’re out gardening and do not wash your hands before touching your mouth.
- Eating raw or undercooked meat infected with Toxoplasma, usually pork, lamb, or deer.
- Passing it directly from a pregnant woman to her unborn child when the mother becomes infected during pregnancy.
Although the disease is capable of being transmitted via contact with cat feces, several factors keep the chance of such transmission low.
- Only cats who ingest tissue cysts get infected. Within the feline population, this would be limited to outdoor cats who hunt and eat rodents, as well as cats who are fed raw meat by their owners.
- Typically a cat only excretes oocystsis (the thick-walled structures in which the parasite develops) when she is first exposed to T. gondii, and this goes on for only two weeks. An outdoor hunting cat is often exposed to the disease as a kitten and is, therefore, less likely to transmit the infection as she ages.
- Because oocysts only become infective after one to five days, exposure to the disease is unlikely as long as you clean the cat's litter box daily.
- Since oocysts are transmitted by ingestion, in order to contract toxoplasmosis, a woman would have to make contact with contaminated feces in the litter box and then, without washing her hands, touch her mouth or otherwise transmit the contaminated fecal matter to her digestive system.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides the following tips to prevent infection:
- Avoid cleaning the litter box, if possible. If you must do this task, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands with soap and water afterwards.
- Still, make sure that the litter box is cleaned on a daily basis. Remember, the parasite does not become infectious until one-to-five days after it is shed in the cat’s feces.
- Feed your cat a commercial dry or canned food, not raw or undercooked meats.
- Do not eat raw or undercooked meat. Meat should be cooked until the internal temperature is 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Keep cats indoors.
- Keep outdoor sandboxes covered.
- Wear gloves when gardening and during contact with soil or sand, and wash your hands with soap and water after gardening.
Giving up your cat is an an extreme and unnecessary precaution. While it is possible for cats to transmit toxoplasmosis, the probability of such a thing is very low. Rather, your cat should continue to be a source of joy and companionship during pregnancy and following the birth of your child.