Sometimes a family is more than just parents, kids, and extended family. Many people consider their pets to be members of the family. So when the family is about to get larger due to a pregnancy, the pets have to be considered.
Pregnancy with cats can be perfectly safe with certain considerations. If needed, extended family may be able to help with pet care during the months a woman is carrying her baby. Though some animals carry risks for pregnant women, knowing warning signs and taking action can keep both mom and baby safe during pregnancy.
Are There Any Risks to Pregnant Women With Cats?
Cats have been shown to contribute to the overall well-being of their owners. They provide mood improvement and give emotional support. About 40 million homes have cats as pets in the U.S.
Though they make good pets, cats can carry some germs that can cause issues from minor skin irritations to major illnesses. With cats and pregnancy risks, potential exposure to germs depends on the cat's habits and their environment. Cats who are outside and who hunt prey are at risk for carrying toxoplasmosis. If they eat their catch, such as mice and other rodents, cats can pick up the parasite that causes this infection. Toxoplasmosis in humans occurs after being exposed to the feces of an infected cat.
What Is Toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by the parasite T. gondii. It is very common, with more than 60 million Americans thought to be infected. It can affect nearly any warm-blooded animal. While it rarely causes symptoms in adults, those who are pregnant are especially at risk.
Cats are a great “host” for T. gondii — rarely showing signs of clinical disease. When a cat eats its prey, the parasite is released from cysts into the digestive tract and is then eventually passed through the feces. Cats can continuously shed cysts containing the toxoplasmosis parasite from 3 days after exposure, up to 14 days. The cysts can survive for over a year.
How Is Toxoplasmosis Spread?
Toxoplasmosis can be spread by:
- Touching or cleaning kitty litter
- Touching soil where cats have been walking or playing
- Eating deer, lamb, pork, or any undercooked meat
What Are the Symptoms of Toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis symptoms in pregnant women can seem general. However, if there is a pet cat in the household, it may be time to suspect this parasite. Symptoms include:
- Body aches
- Swollen lymph nodes
Sometimes there are no visible symptoms, so if you think you have been exposed, contact your doctor. Pregnant women and other immunodeficient people are the most at risk of becoming sick after toxoplasmosis exposure. An infection in an unborn child is very serious. Approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of babies born from mothers who caught toxoplasmosis while pregnant are infected as well.
Many of these babies can develop symptoms of the infection later in life. They may include developmental delays, vision and hearing loss, and most severely, death.
Should a Cat Be Given Away During Pregnancy?
Cats usually can remain in the home during pregnancy. Some things can be done to reduce the risk of exposure to toxoplasmosis. Feeding your cat store-bought dry or canned foods is better than undercooked or raw meat. Keep your cat indoors, keep sandboxes covered, and make sure your cat is up-to-date on vaccinations and inspected for infections.
How Can Toxoplasmosis Be Prevented During Pregnancy?
Toxoplasmosis prevention in pregnant women with pet cats can be as simple as changing daily habits.
- Do not change cat litter: Changing cat litter should be avoided during pregnancy if possible. If this is not an option, wear gloves and wash your hands immediately after.
- Make sure cat litter is changed often: Someone should change the litter box daily. The parasite that causes toxoplasmosis is not infectious until days after it has been passed through a cat’s feces.
- Wear gloves when gardening: During direct contact with sand or dirt during pregnancy, make sure to wear gloves. Contaminated feces from a cat may have exposed toxoplasmosis to the gardening area. Wash your hands with soap and water when you're finished gardening.
- Do not play with stray cats: Avoid stray cats and kittens during pregnancy. Also, don't purchase or babysit new pets during pregnancy.
- Properly cook foods: Foods should be cooked to a safe temperature. A food thermometer is helpful in measuring the internal temperature of meat. Color alone doesn't determine if meat has been cooked at a temperature high enough to kill toxoplasmosis cysts.
Can I Breastfeed My Baby if I Had Toxoplasmosis During Pregnancy?
In healthy women, the chance of passing toxoplasmosis to their baby through breastmilk is small. So, yes, you can breastfeed. There is evidence of toxoplasmosis being passed to babies who drank unpasteurized milk from a goat, but no research has documented exposure to babies from human breast milk.
If a mom who is nursing has split nipples or bleeding nipples, or if her breasts are inflamed while the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis infection is still in her bloodstream, hypothetically the infection can be in breast milk. Also, women who are immunocompromised could have the infection in their system for a longer period of time. But still, passing it on via human breast milk is very unlikely.
What Is the Treatment for Toxoplasmosis?
People who are healthy usually can recover from toxoplasmosis without treatment. If someone becomes sick from the parasite, they can be treated with various drug combinations. This can include sulfadiazine, pyrimethamine, and the mineral folic acid.
Newborns, infants, and pregnant women can also be treated. The parasite, however, can not be completely destroyed. The toxoplasmosis parasite is able to stay dormant in the cells of the tissues. This is because the location of the parasite makes it hard for treatment medications to totally destroy them. Your doctor will be able to make proper recommendations for treatment and follow-ups.