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Toxoplasmosis, The Cat, and Moms-To-Be

Updated on January 7, 2016
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Should We Worry More About Handling Raw Meat?

Since the 1980's medical professionals and the media have been warning pregnant women about a disease known as toxoplasmosis. It's a zoonotic disease spread to humans by cats. But years of research and data collecting have softened the alarm somewhat.

Cats are the definitive hosts for toxoplasmosis, and are the only hosts able to excrete the parasite in a form that's capable of infecting other mammals. The stool of infected cats contains parasitic cysts which infect other mammals that come in contact with it.

Adult humans, who are otherwise in good health, seldom show signs that they even contracted the disease, and if they do, it's usually in the form of swollen glands. Pregnant women, though, can pass the disease to their unborn child.

When infection occurs during the second or third trimester, the fetus can develop hydrocephaly, which is the build-up of excess spinal fluid around the brain. Other conditions attributed to toxoplasmosis include lesions in the retina or the brain of the infant.

Research conducted by the USDA's National Animal Health Monitoring System revealed that toxoplasmosis may be the most expensive food-borne illness, costing nearly 10 billion dollars a year because of the lifelong costs of nursing care due to birth defects.

Research also has revealed that infection from cats is actually rare, and that you're more likely to become infected by handling raw meat or eating under-cooked meat.

Another previously accepted fact has been modified, too. Pregnant women were always warned to wear gloves while gardening since roaming cats may use the garden as a litter box. USDA's research concluded that soil is not a significant source of infection.

Here's How It Works

Cats become infected when they consume small rodents. About three weeks after consuming the parasite, the cat begins to excrete the parasitic cysts in its stool. However, it takes about two days in the stool for the cysts to become infectious.

Should a human come in contact with infected stool over two days old, the human can become infected. The cat will produce infectious cysts for about two to three weeks but then will rid itself of the organisms and build up an immunity.

Once a cat has been infected with toxo, it is uncommon for re-infections to occur later in life. But should that happen, they won't excrete the parasitic cysts during those subsequent infections.

Even with new information that has come as a result of research and years of data collection, all the old cautions are still appropriate for pregnant women or people with compromised immune systems.

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Tsk, tsk, tsk, | Source

Some Precautions for Pregnant Cat Owners

Since it's better to be safe than sorry, it's probably a good idea for moms-to-be to observe the following precautions to reduce the risk of infection:

  • Make your cat an indoor cat. There are many other valid reasons for doing this, but for the purpose of this discussion, the idea is to keep your cat from coming in contact with infected stool from other animals or infected prey animals.
  • Only non-pregnant household members should do litter box duty. Remove stool from the litter box every day in order to get it out of the house before it becomes infectious.
  • Wear gloves when working in gardens and flower beds, even though the USDA found that soil is not a significant source of infection.
  • Feed your cat only commercially prepared diets.
  • After preparing raw meat for cooking, be sure to thoroughly wash knives, cutting boards and utensils. Don't forget counter tops and other surfaces. Wash your hands thoroughly, too and cook the meat to at least 151° F.

This Is For You, Guys

Or, if the kids are old enough to assume the responsibility you can use this as a valuable teaching moment and teach them how to responsibly use the litter scoop (why haven't they already done so?).

I'd like to end this article with a little heart to heart talk with "dads to be" who are faced with taking over litter box duty. Remember, you're not only facing litter box duty, you're also facing diaper changing duty. Been there, done that. Not all that bad. Put on your big boy pants.


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    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi beadreamer, thanks for stopping by. I hadn't heard about the stat that 95% of all people who have had a cat for more than 2yrs very likely went through toxo. I wonder, in those cases, how many didn't even involve the cat at all?

      We're more likely to pick it up from careless handling of raw meat. Most of us thaw meat on the counter, and when we barbeque we pick the meat up with the same tongs we used to put it on the grill in the first place. And, I wonder how careful restaurants are about their food handling practices?

      Thanks for adding to the discussion. Regards, Bob

    • beadreamer247 profile image

      beadreamer247 4 years ago from Zephyrhills, FL

      I came across this, when I had a bird when I was pregnant and some insisted I should get rid of my bird! I didn't. Later on I had cats and the only thing we changed was that I did not clean the litter box during pregnancy. Period. Some people think just because they got pregnant they need to get rid of their cat! What in the world is that??? I would then suggest everybody who plans to get pregnant sometime in life should not get a cat in first place....how does that sound?

      There is also evidence, not mentioned in this article, but a doctor told me, that 95% of all people who have had a cat for more than 2 yrs very likely went through toxoplasmose before they got pregnant and therefore are immune to it. So, why in the world making such panic?

      Thanks for trying to bring some common sense to this topic!

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
      Author

      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Lizzy, thanks for stopping by and for the votes. You're right, there is a certain appeal to the sensationalized. I'm a big fan of the "reality check." While toxo/pregnancy/litter box is a legitimate concern, the reality is that we don't hear much, if anything, about it, therefore it must not be happening very much. If it were, it would be front and center.

      All this is still no reason to be too casual about it. Rubber gloves, mask and hand washing isn't too much to expect.

      Thanks for commenting; always nice to see you. Regards, Bob

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

      This particular problem became known well after my days of childbearing, and at that time, I did not have any cats anyway.

      When my daughters married and started their families, was about the time the most alarming warnings of this issue were becoming widespread. At the time, only one of them had a cat. She got herself tested, and was found to be positive, but it was before she ever became pregnant, and it is apparently not an issue in that sequence.

      My take in any event was always, "So? You never heard of rubber gloves, a mask and hand-washing?"

      So much of what comes in the news is useless fear-mongering easily countered with common-sense precautions. It does not surprise me in the least that handling meat is a bigger culprit.

      Voted up, useful and interesting.