The old wives’ tale that once a woman is pregnant she must banish all cats from her household is simply not true. The basis of this myth comes from the fact that cats can carry a parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii and in turn infect an unborn fetus in an expecting mother. While pregnant women are at risk for infecting their unborn baby, as long as preventative measures are taken this parasite does not pose a significant risk to mothers.
Understanding this parasite.
Cats develop Toxoplasmosis by ingesting the muscle tissue of prey or meat contaminated with the Toxoplasma cysts. Most animals, as well as humans, show no signs of infection. The cat is the only animal that the Toxoplasma gondii parasite can complete its entire life cycle and unborn kittens, as well as immunosuppressed cats, are at an increased risk of infection. Most warm-blooded animals can be infected but are called intermediate hosts. This means that the life cycle stops within the muscle tissues at the cyst stage. So ingestion of infected animal tissues such as undercooked meat is the number one route of contamination to humans and cats. Because water and soil can become infected with Toxoplasma oocysts from cat feces, activities such as gardening without gloves is much riskier to an expecting mother than simply owning a cat. Also, eating steak tartar poses more of a risk than having a furry friend in the house.
How to prevent the disease?
Cats can be prevented from contracting the disease by not giving them raw meat, bones, entrails or unpasteurized milk. Also, outdoor cats are at a much higher risk as the hunting and eating of wild prey can cause a cat to become infected. Believe it or not, flies and cockroaches can be carriers of Toxoplasma and should not be eaten by cats. Humans can prevent infection by wearing gloves when gardening, thoroughly cooking meat, washing their hands after handling raw meat, drinking only pasteurized milk and avoiding contact with litter boxes. Also, washing your hands before eating and after contact with a cat is recommended. In addition, litter boxes should be changed daily as the feces can contain infective oocysts or eggs and humans must ingest these eggs to become infected.
So the bottom line is that as long as a pregnant woman takes proper preventative measures, Toxoplasma does not pose a significant risk to humans. WASH, WASH WASH YOUR HANDS.
Signs of illness in a cat.
Nonspecific signs of anorexia, lethargy, depression, fever and weight loss can occur. Other symptoms include icterus, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, muscle pain, and lameness and eye problems. The disease can come on rapidly or after reactivation of a chronic latent infection during times of immunocompromise. The eyes, lungs, and gastrointestinal systems are more commonly affected than the nervous system.
Your vet needs to do a thorough history, physical exam and laboratory testing to accurately diagnose the disease. Blood tests can tell you whether your cat has been exposed but these tests often need to be repeated to determine if the infection is active or chronic. Sometimes x-rays and testing fluids from your cat are necessary. Cats only shed the infective oocysts for a period of two weeks after contracting Toxoplasma.
Feline leukemia, feline aids, feline infectious peritonitis, blood parasites, steroids, and chemotherapy can compromise the cat’s ability to fight off infection and makes treating the disease more difficult. In general, though, most cats are treated on an outpatient basis with antibiotics that are continued two weeks beyond the resolution of clinical signs. Cats with eye problems sometimes need eye drops to resolve the symptoms. Usually, cats improve within 48 hours of treatment. Follow-up exams by your vet are necessary to determine response and decide when the medications can be stopped.