Can Pregnant Women Be Around Cats?
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Especially if it is a first pregnancy, a lot of parents will worry about providing the best start for their growing family. This will entail troubleshooting many potential dangers such as childproofing the home or simply ensuring they can meet all of their responsibilities. If there are pets in the home, it is understandable we should consider cohabitation with a new baby. For cats, there is also a concern about potential harm to mother an fetus during the pregnancy. Much of this has to do with certain zoonotic diseases and parasites such as toxoplasmosis.
At AnimalWised, we ask can pregnant women be around cats? We look at what considerations we need to make with cats and pregnant woman sharing a home, as well as how to prevent any potential harm.
Is it safe for a pregnant woman to have a cat?
Generally speaking, it is safe for a pregnant woman to live and interact with a cat. If the expectant mother and cat have a good relationship, the cat can be a great boon to a pregnant mother. Petting cats helps us to relax, something which can be very beneficial during the often stressful experience of pregnancy. This doesn't mean we don't need to make certain considerations if we have a cat during pregnancy.
There is a lot of information about cats and pregnant women, but some of it originates from a genuine concern. More specifically, people are worried about toxoplasmosis. This is a parasitic disease caused by Toxoplasma gondii, an intercellular protozoan which is zoonotic, i.e. it can be passed between cats and humans.
Cats are the only definitive host of Toxoplasma gondii, meaning they cannot fulfill their life cycle in other animals or humans. However, they can infest most warm-blooded animals, which does include humans. The resultant disease is often asymptomatic in cats and the same can be the case with humans. If a human does contract toxoplasmosis, they can have flu-like symptoms such as muscle aches and lethargy.
Some humans are more susceptible to the disease, including those with immunodeficiency. This includes people with autoimmune diseases, as well as fetuses. Even if the mother does not show many symptoms, there is about a 30% chance that they can infest the fetus. The more advanced the fetal development, the more likely toxoplasmosis will occur.
The worry is due to the potential effect of toxoplasmosis on the developing fetus. It is possible it can lead to the death of the fetus and a subsequent stillbirth. If the fetus survives there is some risk of the baby having developmental problems such as deafness, blindness or encephalopathy. It is for this reason many expectant parents ask can pregnant women be around cats?
Fortunately, the risk of a pregnant woman becoming infected with toxoplasmosis is very slight. In fact, there are several studies that show living with a cat does not significantly increase the risk of infection, with more concern being directed at eating poorly prepared meat. There is a slightly greater risk if they live with a litter of kittens. We explain more in the next section.
Cats, pregnant women and toxoplasmosis
Toxoplasmosis is usually asymptomatic in cats. If they do develop symptoms they can include ocular, nervous, digestive, muscular, respiratory, cardiac or skin skin problems, depending on location of the parasite. The protozoan does not usually result in many symptoms of an otherwise healthy human. Exceptions usually occur if they are immunocompromised for whatever reason.
As we stated above, although pregnant women will not usually come to harm, their fetuses can be gravely affected. It can result in spontaneous abortion, low birth weight, birth defects, anemia in cats and other issues. It is for this reason we need to be aware of the disease, but does it mean pregnant woman can't touch cats?
Transmission of toxoplasmosis in humans
Touching and petting your cat is not a source of toxoplasmosis infection. Transmission of Toxoplasma gondii protozoa occurs in the following situations:
- Being in contact with feces from cats infected with toxoplasma without washing your hands afterwards
- Gardening or touching soil contaminated by infected cat feces without washing your hands afterwards or without applying preventive measures such as the use of gloves
- Eating raw or undercooked meat
- Handling raw meat and putting your hands in your mouth
- Eating raw or poorly smoked fish
- Eating pork such as ham, loin or cecina
- Consuming vegetables and fruits without washing beforehand
For this reason, pregnant women need to be very careful when working in the garden, cleaning up the cat's litter box, preparing food and other circumstances. If a woman has had a previous toxoplasmosis infection, their body should be better able to prevent another. This means women who have never had an infection are at greater risk.
Toxoplasmosis screening is ideal since treatment options are available in some circumstances, even if a pregnant woman is infected. Unfortunately, this type of screening is not very common in most countries. This is partly due to the relatively low incidence rate.
Treatment of toxoplasmosis in pregnant women
Toxoplasmosis in developed humans can be latent or acute. The treatment will differ according to type. Fetuses can be infected by congenital toxoplasmosis, i.e. it is passed from the fetus by the mother via the placenta. If the woman tests positive for toxoplasmosis, but it has not yet reached the fetus, they can be treated with the antiparasitic spiramycin. If a baby is born with the disease, treatment options are available to help reduce potential developmental issues.
Pregnant women and cats
A healthy cat which does not have toxoplasmosis will be no threat to a pregnant mother. Unfortunately, the often-asymptomatic nature of the disease means we cannot always be sure. Even indoor cats can become infested if they come in contact with an intermediate host such as a mouse. Nonetheless, we should take the cat to a veterinarian for a toxoplasmosis test to have some peace of mind.
Cats which eat a raw food diet, have access to the outside or are not dewormed are more at risk of the disease. We will need to be extra careful if this is the case. For this reason, the following measures need to be taken into account:
- Do not clean the litter box: oocysts are spores which protect the T. gondii zygotes and are present in vast numbers in the feces of infected cats. If a pregnant woman touches this and then allows them to enter her body through an orifice, it can lead to infection. For this reason, it is best to leave this chore to someone else in the household. If you live alone, you will need to take extra precaution such as the use of gloves and disinfectants.
- Careful when gardening: to be very safe, this is another job which can be taken over by someone else. However, if a pregnant woman wants to continue gardening, they must take precautions such as using gardening gloves, avoiding touching their mouth and disinfecting regularly.
- Grooming: although you can pet your cat when pregnant, it is best to be careful. Use extra hygiene measures and wash your hands after petting. Avoid their rear, in particular. As long as your exercise caution, you should be able to interact as per usual.
- Deworming: protecting your cat against disease and parasites through deworming needs to be carried out at any stage of their lives. This is especially the case if pregnant woman lives with a cat. While there is no specific deworming product to protect against toxoplasmosis in cats, it will help keep the cat healthy and avoid other issues.
- Avoid raw meat: if you feed your cat a raw food diet, it might be best to stop until the pregnancy is over. Raw food is a major vector for T. gondii, so we can better avoid infestation if we don't have exposure to it.
Preventing toxoplasmosis in pregnant woman is not only something we need to consider in terms of pet care. We need to be careful at all times not to expose ourselves to raw meat, feces or other vectors of transmission. This means we need to be extra careful when it comes to hygiene.
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1. Cook, A. J., Gilbert, R. E., Buffolano, W., Zufferey, J., Petersen, E., Jenum, P. A., Foulon, W., Semprini, A. E., & Dunn, D. T. (2000). Sources of toxoplasma infection in pregnant women: European multicentre case-control study. European Research Network on Congenital Toxoplasmosis. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 321(7254), 142–147.
- Garcia, L. (2021). Toxoplasmosis in cats - Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment. Retrieved from: https://www.expertoanimal.com/toxoplasmosis-en-gatos-sintomas-diagnostico-y-tratamiento-6520.html