Q: I just found out I'm expecting! But I'm nervous about keeping our cat. I've heard that cats can pass parasites and illnesses to a fetus during pregnancy. Is this true?
A: First of all, congratulations! Secondly, don't panic: The concern about cats posing a threat to unborn babies has to do with a parasite they sometimes carry but rarely pass to humans that can cause an infection called toxoplasmosis. If you were raised with a family cat you could have been infected early in life and not even know it, as the disease causes mild or no symptoms and usually resolves on its own. However if you are not a carrier, and then exposed, it can cause birth defects or even be fatal to the baby. The good news is that cats and expectant moms can absolutely coexist safely. Follow these guidelines to keep yourself and your growing baby free from infection, without having to get rid of your pet.
Know Your Personal Risk
A simple blood test can reveal whether or not you've been exposed to toxoplasmosis in the past. If you have been, there's almost no risk to your unborn child, since you'll have already developed immunity against the infection. If your blood test is negative for toxoplasmosis, you should take extra precaution because contracting it during pregnancy poses a threat to the fetus.
Toxoplasmosis is typically spread from an infected cat to a person through contact with cat feces. This can occur when you clean your cat's litter box, touch contaminated feces, and then touch your mouth. To cut your risk, I recommend asking your husband to help by scooping solid waste from the litter box daily. If you have to do it, wear gloves and wash your hands afterward. The parasite can also be transmitted through gardening, or eating uncleaned vegetables, if an infected animal has left droppings in the soil. Wash all vegetables thoroughly to avoid risk.
Keep Your Cat Safe
Cats get toxoplasmosis from eating contaminated raw meat, birds, mice, or soil, so try to keep your cat indoors, and don't bring in any strays during this time. Above all, be aware that the risk of transmission to your baby is very low -- and the benefits of cat ownership far outweigh the health risks, so don't throw the kitty out with the bath water!
Shawn Messonnier is a holistic vet and the founder of Paws & Claws Animal Hospital in Plano, Texas.