Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Toxoplasmosis: Cats Can Stay When Baby is on the Way

Pet Column for the week of October 23, 2006

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Brookelyn Nitzkin
Information Specialist

In the past pregnant women were advised to get rid of their cats because of the potential for disease to be transmitted to an unborn fetus. The biggest concern is toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by a parasite that can cause severe deformities in unborn babies.

Although cats are the only animal that can transmit this disease directly to people, Dr. Allan Paul, a parasitologist and small animal Extension veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, says, "There is no correlation between toxoplasmosis and cat ownership."

Toxoplasmosis is spread in two ways: by consuming raw or undercooked meat containing the organism and by ingesting infective eggs shed in the feces of a recently infected cat. Avoiding the first means of catching this disease is simple: don't eat raw or undercooked meat. The freezing process will kill the parasite, so frozen meat is safe to eat.

By understanding how the parasite is spread by cats, you can also easily avoid contamination from cat feces without giving up the feline members of your family during pregnancy.

"Cats spread the disease by passing eggs in their feces when they are infected. However, cats shed the eggs only for a few weeks after the initial infection," explains Dr. Paul.

From the time the cat passes the eggs in its feces, it takes at least 24 hours for the egg to become infective. Thus, owners who clean the litter box every day will not come into contact with any infective eggs. Better yet, ask someone other than the pregnant woman to clean the litter box every day. Always wash your hands after you clean up litter. This principle of hygienic should be followed by anyone who owns a cat.

In addition to avoiding cat litter, it's best to avoid gardening and sand boxes, too, which may also be areas where cat feces are found. If you can't avoid these areas, make sure to wear gloves and wash your hands afterwards.

As many as 30 to 50 percent of all cats, dogs, and people have already been exposed to Toxoplasmosis, meaning their bodies have already made antibodies to it. While cats may carry the organism their entire life, they will not shed the disease again unless they becomes immunosuppressed.

You can have your cat tested as soon as you find out you are pregnant. If your cat already has certain antibodies to this disease, then your cat has already had the disease and probably will not shed again. For cats not already positive for toxoplasmosis, two safeguards for protecting them from infection with this or other diseases include keeping them indoors and never feeding them raw meat.

People can also be tested for toxoplasmosis. If women test positive before becoming pregnant, they cant pass the disease through the placenta to their fetus.

In the past, it was common medical advice for pregnant or immunosuppressed people--AIDS, cancer patients, people with autoimmune disease--to part with their cat. Yet many cat owners consider their cats indispensable members of the family.

Luckily there are simple ways to manage yourself and your pets to enjoy pet ownership and ensure that you do not catch this disease.