Toxoplasmosis and pregnancy: 11 safety guidelines

We have four cats and my wife has just become pregnant. Are there any concerns we should have regarding the cats?

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Robert Steele

Robert W. Steele, MD, is a board certified pediatrician at St. John's Regional Health Center in Springfield, MO. He graduated from medical... Read more

Cats, while lovable pets, are the source of a serious infection that can be a hazard to the fetus. This infection is caused from a tiny parasite named Toxoplasma gondii that can be found almost everywhere.

Toxoplasmosis is a parasite which cats pick up from the stool of other infected cats or from eating raw meat. These parasites are then shed in the stool of the infected cat. Thus, a pregnant woman can pick up this infection from the litter box (or soil) in which the cat defecates. She may also pick up this infection from eating poorly-cooked meat, from touching her eyes or mouth with her hands if they are contaminated from handling raw meat or from handling vegetables from a garden where soil has been contaminated by a newly-infected cat.

Between 10 and 20 percent of American women of chidbearing age are immune to toxoplasmosis, having had it earlier in their lives -- their unborn babies would not be at risk for this infection. A blood test can show if you are immune or if you are currently infected.

If a woman gets infected with toxoplasmosis while expecting she may not even realize she has it. But her unborn baby could get this infection and have serious problems such as mental retardation, learning disabilities, and blindness (not always appearing at birth). Toxoplasmosis can also cause stillbirth or pre-term birth.

So, does this mean you should get rid of Fluffy? I don't think such drastic measures are needed, however, your wife should not change the litter box, and she should be sure to follow these 11 safety guidelines:

1. Eat only thoroughly cooked meat -- cooked until well done.

2. Do not drink unpasteurized milk.

3. Wash your hands, utensils and cutting boards after handling raw meat, fruits and vegetables to prevent cross contamination.

4. Wash your hands often when handling raw meats, fruits and vegetables.

5. Keep your hands away from your mouth and eyes when cooking.

6. Do not change the kitty litter when pregnant. If you must do it yourself, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands afterwards.

7. Have someone change the kitty litter each day. Soak the tray in boiling water for five minutes to clean.

8. Do not allow your cat to go outside.

9. Wear gloves when working in the garden and keep your hands away from your mouth and eyes.

10. If you pick fruits and vegetables from your garden wash thoroughly when finished.

11. Stay away from children's sand boxes and cover when not in use.

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