I’ve recently a several emails, conversations and calls pertaining to cats, toxoplasmosis, pregnancy and conception. I am taking this as a hint from the Universe that maybe people need to know about it. As I’m still tied up with the move, I thought I’d get a little help and asked Dr Isabel Ling to provide me with a good article. This is what she sent..
My conclusion is that if you need to deal with your cat’s toilet while pregnant, just wash your hands afterwards and you’ll be fine. And having cats cannot prevent/delay/affect conception.
Toxoplasmosis and Human Pregnancy
What is the Risk to an Unborn Child?
Cornell Feline Health Center
A human with an acute Toxoplasma infection experiences varying degrees of illness: fever, swollen lymph nodes, muscle stiffness, joint pain, swollen liver, and spleen (manifested as a sore upper abdomen). These symptoms may be so mild as to go unnoticed. Illness lasts 1 to 12 weeks and is often dismissed as a bad cold or mononucleosis.
However, if the person infected is a pregnant woman, the Toxoplasma organism may cross the placenta. The amount of damage done depends on the stage of pregnancy at the time of infection. Infection in early pregnancy may result in miscarriage or stillbirth. Infection in early pregnancy may result in a child with varying degrees of blindness (due to inflamed retina) and/or various severe neurological conditions including hydrocephalus, microcephaly, and retardation. Sometimes problems are not evident at birth and show up late in life.
Fortunately, only 30% to 40% of infections in pregnant women result in damage to the fetus.
The problems described above occur only when someone is infected with Toxoplasma for the first time; that is, a person who has already had the infection is not likely to get sick again nor is she likely to transmit the organism to an unborn child. (It is estimated that one third of the U.S. population has already had toxoplasmosis.) In general, people who do experience more than one acute episode are severely immunosuppressed (as from AIDS or cancer therapy.)
How do People get this Disease?
There are two basic forms of toxoplasma organism: the oocyst, which is shed in the cat feces, and the Toxoplasma tissue stages, which live in the flesh of such food animals as hogs and lambs. A person who inadvertently eats either of these forms of Toxoplasma is liable to become infected.
If my Cat has Toxoplasma, won’t he be Obviously Sick?
Not necessarily. The form of infection which is contagious to humans is the intestinal form in which the cat sheds oocysts in its feces. The cat may or may not show diarrhea.
Cats may experience an acute illness similar to that which humans experience, however, in adults cats, symptoms are usually mild and go unnoticed. This form of infection is not contagious to humans, though a pregnant cat could transmit the disease to her kittens.
How is my Cat a Risk to me?
The cat has probably been over-emphasized as a carrier of toxoplasma; most human infections result from eating tissue stages of Toxoplasma in undercooked meat.
Usually a cat will only shed oocysts after the first infection of Toxoplasma; a cat that has already had a toxoplasma infection usually will not re-shed the oocysts unless its immune system has been compromised (as through the feline leukemia virus infection or drugs.) Cats shedding oocysts generally do so for 5 to 14 days.
Oocysts require 24 to 48 hours to sporulate; that is, grow into a form which is dangerous to people. For this reason, the cat’s litter box should be changed daily or twice daily. Dangerous oocysts when gardening. Note that freezing weather will not reliably kill dangerous oocysts in soil nor will freezing meat kill the dangerous tissue forms.
Your cat may be tested to see if he/she has already had toxoplasmosis; a cat that has already been infected is unlikely to shed dangerous oocysts in the future.
Can I “catch” toxoplasmosis from my cat?
Because cats only shed the organism for a few days in their entire life, the chance of human exposure is small. Owning a cat does not mean you will be infected with the disease. It is unlikely that you would be exposed to the parasite by touching an infected cat, because cats usually do not carry the parasite on their fur. It is also unlikely that you can become infected through cat bites or scratches. In addition, cats kept indoors that do not hunt prey or are not fed raw meat are not likely to be infected with T. gondii.
People are much more likely to become infected through eating raw meat and unwashed fruits and vegetables than from handling cat feces.
How are people infected with Toxoplasma gondii?
Contact with oocyst-contaminated soil is probably the major means by which many different species-rodents, ground-feeding birds, sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle, as well as humans living in developing countries-are exposed to Toxoplasma gondii. In the industrialized nations, most transmission to humans is probably due to eating undercooked infected meat, particularly lamb and pork. People also become infected by eating unwashed fruits and vegetables. The organism can sometimes be present in some unpasteurized dairy products, such as goat’s milk. Toxoplasma gondii can also be transmitted directly from pregnant woman to unborn child when the mother becomes infected during pregnancy.
There are two populations at high risk for infection with Toxoplasma gondii; pregnant women and immunodeficient individuals. Congenital infection is of greatest concern in humans. About one-third to one-half of human infants born to mothers who have acquired Toxoplasma during that pregnancy are infected. The vast majority of women infected during pregnancy have no symptoms of the infection themselves. The majority of infected infants will show no symptoms of toxoplasmosis at birth, but many are likely to develop signs of infection later in life. Loss of vision, mental retardation, loss of hearing, and death in severe cases, are the symptoms of toxoplasmosis in congenitally infected children.
In immunodeficient people-those undergoing immunosuppressive therapy (e.g., for cancer or organ transplantation) or those with an immunosuppressive disease such as AIDS-enlargement of the lymph nodes, ocular and central nervous-system disturbances, respiratory disease, and heart disease are among the more characteristic symptoms. In these patients-especially those with AIDS-relapses of the disease are common, and the mortality rate is high. In the past, immunodeficient people and pregnant women were advised to avoid cats. However, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now advises that this is not necessary.
What can I do to prevent toxoplasmosis?
There are several general sanitation and food safety steps you can take to reduce your chances of becoming infected with Toxoplasma:
- Do not eat raw or undercooked meat. Meat should be cooked to a temperature of at least 160°F for 20 minutes.
- Do not drink unpasteurized milk.
- Do not eat unwashed fruits and vegetables.
- Wash hands and food preparation surfaces with warm soapy water after handling raw meat.
- Wear gloves when gardening. Wash hands after gardening.
- Wash hands before eating (especially for children).
- Keep children’s sandboxes covered.
- Do not drink water from the environment unless it is boiled.
- Do not feed raw meat or undercooked meat to cats. Also, do not give them unpasteurized milk.
- Do not allow cats to hunt or roam.
- Do not allow cats to use a garden or children’s play area as their litter box.
- Remove feces from the litter box daily and clean with boiling or scalding water.
- Pregnant women, and persons with suppressed immune systems, should not clean the litter box.
- Control rodent populations and other potential intermediate hosts.
Cornell Feline Health Center