Toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, has been scaring pregnant women and families for years—and cats have a bad reputation for being the source! The truth is, despite the feline’s connection to this parasite, family pets are likely not the cause of this disease in most human cases. In fact, the majority of human infections occur as a result of gardening in contaminated soil or handling/consuming raw meat or unwashed fruits and vegetables.
What Is It?
Toxoplasma gondii is a protozoan parasite. It's ingested when cats eat another animal's feces or an infected intermediate host, such as a rodent or rabbit. Newly infected cats then shed the inactive eggs in their stool for 1-2 weeks, where they become active and may be consumed by other creatures.
Toxoplasmosis is a zoonotic disease, which means it can be passed from animals to humans. As a result, humans can become exposed through contact with cat feces (rarely). The good news is that:
- Indoor-only cats have a very low risk of carrying this parasite,
- Infected cats only shed the parasite for 1-2 weeks in their entire lives (after which they are immune to infection), and
- It takes 1-3 days for the eggs to sporulate (become active) after defecation.
However, if a pregnant woman is newly infected with toxoplasmosis (from any source), the parasite can cross the placenta and infect her unborn child. This trans-placental infection has the potential to cause serious congenital defects.
The best way to prevent your cat from being infected, and therefore reduce the risk to both you and your unborn child, is to keep your cat indoors (not allowing him/her to roam outside or hunt small animals). If your cat is indoor-only, his/her risk of infection will be very low.
If your cat does go outside, don't allow him/her to use your garden or any children's play areas (especially sand boxes!) as litter boxes. You can also take steps to control the rodent population to cut down on the prey your furry hunter may consume. In addition, your cat should have annual fecal examinations and bloodwork performed by your veterinarian.
If you're pregnant and concerned about Toxoplasma, cleaning the litter box daily will prevent the eggs from becoming active. Disposable gloves can also be worn while emptying the litter box to further mitigate risk.
Additionally, you should not eat raw or undercooked meat while pregnant. If you are gardening or digging in the soil where an outside cat may have defecated, wear gloves and wash your hands regularly.
Unfortunately, there is no vaccine at this time to prevent toxoplasmosis in either humans or cats. The good news is that it rarely causes disease in either species.
Veterinarians are both pet and human health advocates. While talking to your doctor is advised, be aware that your veterinarian is also a great resource for parasite concerns and can give you current information about zoonotic diseases you could get from your pets.
Remember, there are many benefits to being a cat owner, and there is no evidence that your cat is any more dangerous to your health than any other pet. So, please, talk with your veterinarian about your cat's risks, and please do not get rid of your cat just because you are pregnant!
If you need to schedule an appointment for your cat to see the vet, you can fill out our handy online form or give us a call.