Pregnant? You don’t have to give up your cat

The arrival of a new baby is an occasion of joy. But for some families, the joy is clouded by the belief that a pregnancy means the beloved family cat has to go. The good news is you can have your baby and your cat, too.

The most common concern pregnant women have is that they will contract toxoplasmosis from their cat. Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic infection that can cause birth defects in human babies if the mother gets infected while she’s pregnant. The later in her pregnancy a woman is infected, the more likely that problems will occur.

But the risk of actually getting toxoplasmosis from a cat is minimal. Pregnant women are more likely to get toxoplasmosis from eating undercooked meat than they are from touching a cat.

The risk of getting toxoplasmosis from working in an outdoor garden is greater than the risk from touching a cat. Cats that live outdoors like to bury their feces in the soft soil of gardens, so it’s possible that someone who is gardening could come into contact with toxoplasmosis-infected cat feces.

Cats get infected with toxoplasmosis from eating mice and other living prey. Indoor-only cats have minimal risk of infection.

Toxoplasmosis usually has no symptoms. Many people probably have been infected at one point and didn’t even know. The worst thing that happens to healthy people who get toxoplasmosis is that they suffer mild flu-like symptoms.

In order to decrease the risk of toxoplasmosis even further, pregnant women can take the following precautions:

  • Avoid litter box duties. It is the cat’s feces that contain the toxoplasmosis parasite.
  • Clean (or have your partner, housemate or one of your children clean) the litterbox at least twice a day. Cat feces don’t begin to shed the toxoplasmosis parasite until they’ve sat out for at least 12 hours, so frequent cleaning will keep everyone safe.
  • Rinse the litter box with a mild bleach solution once every couple of weeks. Make sure you rinse the bleach out very well when your finished, because cats don’t like the smell of bleach.
  • Avoid eating undercooked meat. Pregnant women should have any meat cooked to at least “medium” and should not handle raw meat.
  • Don’t cut vegetables on the same surface you used for cutting and preparing your meat for cooking.
  • Wear gloves while gardening to avoid bare-handed contact with feces from neighborhood cats.

Toxoplasmosis is a legitimate concern. However, the fear of toxoplasmosis is much greater than the actual risk. More and more obstetricians are telling their patients that they don’t have to get rid of the cat if they’re pregnant. They just have to take some simple steps to minimize the risk.

Even if a pregnant women were to get toxoplasmosis, there are medications available that will cure the infection but not harm the baby.

Well-researched studies have shown that children raised with cats and other pets learn to respect other living creatures and begin to understand responsibility at an earlier age. Not only that, but a cat can be a wonderful confidant and a great sleep aid for a child who needs a nap. Don’t let your fear for your baby’s health rob you and your family of your feline friend.

(This article originally appeared in the October 12, 2006, Your Pet supplement, published by Courier Publications and inserted in six newspapers distributed throughout coastal Maine.)