There is a disease that pregnant women are warned about particularly if they own a cat. This disease is Toxoplasmosis, and sadly many women make the uneducated decision to get rid of their beloved pet cat due to a risk factor that they may not fully understand.
Toxoplasmosis is the name of a disease caused by a tiny parasite, Toxoplasma gondii. Toxoplasmosis typically causes flu like symptoms, or none at all. In extreme cases, as a person with HIV, it may be fatal. The fear to pregnant women is that it pass through the placenta to her unborn fetus and may cause some health problems for the child.
Physicans warn women not to clean the cat's litter box, and in some cases go so far as to suggest they get rid of their cat, but cats are only one of the hosts that can transmit the parasite to humans, so is eating undercooked meat, especially pork or lamb. More importantly, very few cats are at risk of carrying, or shedding this parasite at all. In order to get toxoplasmosis and risk problems to their unborn child, the person must ingest particles of cat feces, and only if they have not been infected before, and only if the cat is shedding the parasite at the time, and it only causes problems to the child if this happens at a certain point during pregnancy.
For the chain reaction to be perfect the cat must eat a mouse that is infected with, and currently shedding, the parasite. A cat who is not exposed to mice will not be exposed to this parasite, and therefore not risk. Even then the cat will only shed the parasite for a few weeks after contacting it. They never shed it again, even if they are exposed to it in the future. We can see that cat is around mice regularly, has probably already gone through this cycle and will never shed the virus again, ever.
The parasite is shed through the cats feces, it cannot be airborne and has not been found active on cat fur, so in order for it to be transmitted to a human, feline fecal matter must be ingested. So really all a pregnant woman has to do is wear gloves, or wash her hands following cleaning the litter, or have somebody else clean the litter box. Similarly by not letting the cat outside where it could catch mice will also reduce the risk factor.
According to the US Centers for Disease control and Prevention, just over 15% of the population in the USA has been previously infected, and therefor have immunity, and about 1/3 of the entire human population of the planet has had contact with Toxoplasma. Roughly half of the cases of Toxoplasmosis are from eating undercooked meat, other causes are tainted produce, or bad bottled water.
Dogs themselves are not a risk factor, but if they are fed a raw diet, or have meals cooked for them, their owner may be at risk while handling the raw meat. Always wash your hands afterward!
- Concerned women can get tested to see if they have been infected by this parasite in the past, if so there is no risk of problems in the future.
- Some areas may offer testing for the cat, again if the cat was already exposed, there is no risk of problems in the future.
- Less than one half of women infected during pregnancy transmit it to their unborn child. The risk is lowest in the first and second trimester.
- Tests can be done during pregnancy and even afterwards. There are treatments available in both cases.
- Occasionally a woman will be infected just before conception and this can cause problems, as such cat owners who are trying to conceive should follow the same cautions as when pregnant (wearing gloves to change the litter box).
- If left untreated the most common complication to the baby is that it will develop vision, hearing, or learning, problems later in life. To an extreme the baby may have an abnormally large, or small head.
If a woman has eaten undercooked meat ever (or handled it without care), she may have already contacted the parasite, built up and immunity to it, and therefore not be at risk from her cat.
If a woman washes her hands following cleaning the litter box, she can be relatively sure she will not ingest the Toxoplasma parasite.
Getting rid of a cat for fear of something that really has a low risk factor, and is preventable in other ways, is unfair to the cat.
Adult cats seldom find permanent, good, homes. Giving up a cat may mean a life sentence for the pet.