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Toxoplasmosis, The Cat, and Moms-To-Be
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.
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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.
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.