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Pregnant? You can keep your cat! The scoop on Toxoplasmosis

Many pregnant women go to their first doctor visit and leave with unnecessary fear and anxiety about their beloved cat. Physicians have been getting better in the past years, but there are still some doctors out there who have not kept up with the times, and are telling pregnant women they cannot have a cat in the house. The reason? They say the woman is at risk for toxoplasmosis, which can harm the fetus. Some go so far as to say the cat must be re-homed immediately. Please know this is not true!

So now we have confusion, hormones, morning sickness, anxiety…let’s make this as low-stress as possible.

I’ll cut to the chase- you can keep your cats. All of them. Dogs too, but those are never blamed for toxoplasmosis. If you want to be super duper cautious, have your husband or partner clean out the litter box. Why? You’re doing the work of carrying a baby, they can step up. Have them keep that job after the baby is born and you’re exhausted, just ‘cuz. Doctor’s orders. (You’re welcome.)

Time for facts.

“Toxo,” as we often call it, is short for an organism called Toxoplasma gondii. An infection with Toxoplasma is called Toxoplasmosis. The organism is not a bacteria, fungus, or virus, like many other bad guys we talk about. It’s a protozoa….a whole different family of organism. A more famous protozoa is Giardia, which can cause diarrhea in dogs, cats, and people. These are microscopic organisms that often have a tail to help them “swim.” Gross.

Toxo, like any protozoa, can exist in various life stages, or forms, each with its own unique ability to infect animals in different ways. The version people worry about with cats are the oocysts. The theory is the cat is shedding these microscopic cysts in their feces, and a pregnant woman will somehow consume the feces, infecting herself with toxo, and the organism crosses the placenta, causing harm to her unborn baby in the form of birth defects.

You can see this theory has obvious flaws. First of all, most pregnant women are adults, and would likely use common sense, like washing their hands after dealing with cat feces. Most people are not scooping cat poop and immediately grabbing an apple. But let’s say you’re fast and loose with cat poop, not into hand washing, are you and your unborn child still at risk? Surprisingly….not really! (Although I’d rethink your stance on handwashing….)

Here’s where it gets good. These toxo cysts are rarely in cat poop. Most cats do not have toxo, particularly if they are indoor only. They way a cat contracts toxo is from hunting and eating animals it did not cook first (cat’s are just not good cooks). A cat with toxo will most likely not act sick. The cat will shed the microscopic cysts in its feces for up to 3 weeks after infection (most cats are 1-2 weeks). After that, the cat’s system has successfully fought off the infection, there are no more toxo cysts in the feces…EVER! The poop is safe to eat….but I still wouldn’t recommend it for obvious reasons.

In rare cases, cats cannot fight off the infection, and you know you have a really sick cat! Symptoms can include fever, seizures, bad stuff, so toxo in cats is nothing to blow off. Good news is, an antibiotic can treat most cases. And it is the small minority of cats, often with compromised immune systems, that actually get sick from toxo.

Assuming your cat has a fully functioning immune system, after that 1-3 weeks of shedding cysts, the risk of toxo is essentially gone. Forever. So everyone makes this big deal about something that is unlikely to happen, but if it does, it only lasts 3 weeks or less.

True story – a vet tech I worked with was pregnant. As a vet tech for many years, you can imagine she’s dealt with her share of cat poop. Some days she’d been covered. Her doctor wanted to test her for exposure to toxo, considering her at a higher risk than the average person. Guess what – her titer was negative! In all her years of working as a vet tech, she had never encountered toxo cysts. EVER. So if a vet tech isn’t running into toxo, do you think the owner of the indoor cat is going to be exposed? Meh.

Yet, you hear about people getting toxo, right? (Actually I don’t, but roll with me). There are other ways people can get toxo. Realistic ways.

Toxoplasma can infect animals besides cats and people, and the way most humans get toxo is through the consumption of undercooked meat. Eating undercooked lamb or pork are the more common ways. Raw milk, especially goat’s milk, is another way the infection can be spread. So it’s not a good idea for a pregnant woman to consume any of these foods, but also to not feed raw foods to the cat. If a person can get toxo from eating raw meat, so can your cat! And no, microwaving does not heat uniformly enough to kill all the organisms – you gotta cook it all to 165 degrees.

What’s another realistic way a person can get toxo? Digging outside in sandboxes or gardening in an area with outdoor cats that hunt and are shedding cysts into the soil or sand….and you eat something and don’t wash your hands. It’s a possibility!

Bottom line – if you are pregnant, congratulations! Enjoy keeping your cat around. You won’t get toxo from your pet. Cook your meat thoroughly, avoid raw milk, make your partner clean the litter box, don’t feed your pets raw food, and if you encounter cat feces (ie – poor kiddo has diarrhea) wear gloves, or simply wash your hands well afterwards. Your cat can stay…and help raise your little one to be an animal lover like you.