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Toxoplasmosis: Cats Can Stay When Baby Is on the Way

Q: ln the past, pregnant women were advised to get rid of their cats because of the potential for disease to be transmitted to an unborn fetus. ls this an Old Wives Tale or something that pet owners need to be concerned about?

A: (by Dr. Allen Paul, parasitologist and small animal extension veterinarian)

The biggest concern with regard to pregnant women and cats is toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by a parasite that can cause severe deformities in unborn babies.

Although cats are the only animal that can transmit this disease directly to people, there is no documented correlation between toxoplasmosis and cat ownership. Toxoplasmosis is spread in two ways: by consuming raw or undercooked meat containing the organism and by ingesting infective eggs shed in the feces of a recently infected cat. Avoiding the first means of catching this disease is simple: don't eat raw or undercooked meat. The freezing process will kill the parasite, so frozen meat is safe to eat. By understanding how the parasite is spread by cats, you can also easily avoid contamination from cat feces without giving up contact with felines during pregnancy.

Cats spread the disease by passing eggs in their feces when they are infected. However, cats shed the eggs only for a few weeks after the initial infection. From the time the cat passes the eggs in its feces, it takes at least 24 hours for the egg to become infective. Thus, cleaning the litter box every day will prevent contact with any infective eggs. Another option is to ask someone other than the pregnant woman to clean the litter box every day. Always wash your hands after you clean up litter. This principle of hygiene should be followed by anyone who deals with cats. In addition to avoiding cat litter, it's best to avoid gardening and sand boxes, which may also be areas where cat feces are found. lf you can't avoid these areas, make sure you wear gloves and wash your hands afterwards. As many as 30 to 50 percent of all cats, dogs, and people have already been exposed to toxoplasmosis, meaning their bodies have already made antibodies to it. While cats may carry the organism their entire life, they will not shed the disease again unless they become immuno-suppressed.

Pet owners can have their cats tested for toxoplasmosis. lf a cat already has certain antibodies to this disease, then that cat has already had the disease and probably will not shed again. For cats not already positive for toxoplasmosis, two safeguards for protecting them from infection with this or other diseases include keeping them indoors and never feeding them raw meat. People can also be tested for toxoplasmosis. lf a woman tests positive before becoming pregnant, she cannot pass the disease through the placenta to her fetus.

In the past, it was common medical advice for pregnant or immuno-suppressed people, AIDS and cancer patients, people with autoimmune disease, to part with their cats. Now we know that in most cases, this is unnecessary. Many cat owners consider their cats indispensable members of the family. Luckily, there are simple ways to manage your actions and your contact with pets and still ensure that you and your baby remain healthy.