Cats and Pregnancy are not mutually exclusive
Cats and pregnancy are not mutually exclusive. Fairly early in your pregnancy you heard (or should have heard) that you should not clean out the litter box under any circumstances because there’s something there that can cause severe birth defects to your baby. Some people take this to an extreme and should avoid your cat altogether. That’s overly simplifying it a bit, and as I found out during our own pregnancy not quite accurate.
The concern between pregnancy and cats centers around toxoplasmosis, a parasite-caused disease that can be passed through a cat’s poop (the scientific term is feces). This is where the concern of avoiding changing the cat box comes in. What many doctors fail to remind you is that you should wash your hands thoroughly after handling your cat during your pregnancy, since cats lick themselves (everywhere), and therefore potentially spreading the parasite.
As mentioned, toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by a parasite. It is relatively symptom free, and about 1/3 of the world’s population is infected (the higher concentration of population infection occurring in tropical climates). However, approximately 85% of women of ‘child bearing age’ in the US have not been exposed to the parasite.
How You Become Infected with a Toxoplasmosis Parasite:
The most common way people become infected with toxoplasmosis is not from cats, but from eating raw or undercooked meat – especially pork and lamb. While you should always be careful in handling, preparing and cooking raw meat, be especially careful when you’re pregnant. Clean utensils and cutting boards well with warm, soapy water. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling meat. I actually know someone who ‘thoroughly’ washes her hands by simply letting water run over them just enough to get them wet – this is even after cooking or using the bathroom. To thoroughly wash your hands make sure you use warm water, lots of soap, and work up a lather during two renditions of “Happy Birthday” – which you probably want to sing under your breath.
Your cat gets toxoplasmosis by eating something it caught that was carrying the parasite, or by coming into contact with contaminated soil. Your cat then passes the parasite through his feces, which you can come into contact with when cleaning out his litter box - and which is why it's highly recommended that pregnant women not change litter boxes during their pregnancy. It's not just the litter you should be careful with, remember, cats do lick themselves everywhere, and you should wash your hands thoroughly after spending quality time with your cat.
Another way you can contract toxoplasmosis is by gardening or otherwise working in the soil, as the toxoplasmosis parsite lives in the dirt. If you do work in the soil, make sure you wear gardening gloves, and wash your hands thoroughly when done. Be sure to carefully wash and peel vegetables - especially those that are grown in a family garden, as you don't know if the soil is contaminated or not. Also, avoid sandboxes, as cats often find these just as easy to use as litter boxes.
Cats rarely show signs that they’ve been infected with toxoplasmosis. In fact, people rarely show signs that they have been infected, so there is a chance that you’re already ‘infected’ with toxoplasmosis and not even know it. The only definitive way to determine if your cat – or yourself - are infected is through a blood test, which is usually not one of the battery of tests you edure durng your first few visits to the doctor after you find out you’re pregnant. If you’re concerned that you may have come into contact with toxoplasmosis, talk to your ob/gyn or midwife about what testing is available.
Toxoplasmosis and Birth Defects
While toxoplasmosis isn’t uncommon, and it provides little concern for healthy cats and people, it is a big concern as a potential cause of birth defects, and you will want to avoid contracting the toxoplasmosis parsite during your pregnancy.
According to the March of Dimes, somewhere between 400 and 4,000 babies in the United States are born with toxoplasmosis each year.
The extent of toxoplasmosis birth defects vary. Babies born with toxoplasmosis often develop eye infections, an enlarged liver and spleen, jaundice and pneumonia. Infection can also cause severe mental retardation, severe vision loss, cerebral palsy, seizures and even death. Toxoplasmosis during pregnancy also can result in miscarriage, preterm delivery or stillbirth.
Pregnancy and Cat Litter
While people usually contract the toxoplasmosis parasite through undercooked meat, cat litter is still a major concern, and the risk can be easily avoided. Use your pregnancy as reason to not change the cat litter through your entire pregnancy if you’d like, especially during the first three months when birth defects are most likely to occur. If you don’t have anyone who is willing to change the litter box for you, don’t get rid of your cat or banish Fluffy to the outside world for nine months. Whenever you scoop or clean the litter box, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands thoroughly immediately afterward.
The information on this website is designed for educational purposes only. The information is NOT intended to be a substitute for medical care. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have.