One of the first pieces of advice that pregnant people often hear is about the things they should or should not do now that they are expecting. Inevitably, someone will remind a pregnant cat owner that she is at risk of contracting a disease known as toxoplasmosis if she handles cat feces when scooping out a litter box. This is a legitimate concern that pregnant cat owners should be aware of. But what about other issues related to being around cats? Can you pet cats if you're pregnant?
Toxoplasmosis and pregnancy
Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. It's a common infection that many people are already exposed to, but it doesn't cause problems because most people's immune system prevents an infection from taking hold. The Centers for Disease Control reports that a toxoplasmosis infection often feels like the flu with achy muscles, headache, and swollen glands.
If you contract toxoplasmosis before pregnancy, your immune system generally prevents future infections. However, contracting toxoplasmosis within six months of becoming pregnant, or during pregnancy, can cause problems for the developing fetus. March of Dimes warns that potential problems include preterm birth, infections, and more serious problems such as cerebral palsy or even stillbirth in severe infections. Each year, between 400 and 4,000 babies in the United States are born with toxoplasmosis. Some tests can tell if your developing fetus has this infection.
Should you pet cats if you're pregnant?
While this sounds like a serious concern, and it can be, the risk of parasite infection is low due to normal immune system function. Pregnant cat owners don't have to get rid of their cats or keep them outside throughout their whole pregnancy. Transmission is mostly limited to contact with cat feces or infected raw meat. Outdoor cats who eat rodents are the most likely to have this disease, according to the Humane Society.
Infected cats excrete oocystis (the parasitic microorganisms that reproduce) typically when they are first exposed to Toxoplasma gondii, and this phase lasts about two weeks. The oocysts become infectious only after one to five days, so if the litter box is cleaned daily it is not likely that they will become infectious. A pregnant woman could become infected if cleaning the litter box with bare hands, coming into contact with infected feces. She would then need to touch her mouth or otherwise get the parasite into her body's immune system.
Other immune system concerns
Cats are not the only means of infection. In fact, toxoplasmosis can be carried by any mammal—so rats, rabbits, and other household pets can also potentially transmit toxoplasmosis. While the risk is lower in dogs, it is possible for a dog to become infected if they consume infected cat feces.
Pregnant women and cat owners in general can limit contact with the parasite through safe food handling, according to the CDC. Don't eat undercooked or raw meat, especially pork. Wash your hands after changing a litter box, and avoid places where cat feces might be present, such as children's sandboxes. This parasite can also live in soil, such as in garden beds where cats are likely to go to the bathroom. If you enjoy gardening, wear work gloves, and wash your hands afterwards.
If you can, ask someone else to clean your cat litter box daily for you. If that's not possible, wear gloves when you clean the box and wash your hands thoroughly when you're done. An indoor cat who doesn't become exposed to other parasites or rodents which they might catch and eat will be a lot less likely to transmit the virus.
Pregnant cat owners do not need to get rid of their cats and can continue to pet them. An indoor cat is not likely to be exposed to the toxoplasmosis parasite. While the parasite can be a problem for a developing fetus if toxoplasmosis is contracted within six months of pregnancy or during pregnancy, pregnant women are usually not at risk from a prior infection because a healthy immune system prevents it from becoming a problem.
Someone who is pregnant can reduce their risks by wearing gloves when they change the litter box and while gardening, and avoiding touching their hands and face if they are exposed to any cat feces. In addition, they should not eat raw meat, which can also be a source of the toxoplasmosis parasite.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.