If you’ve ever wondered whether it was true that pregnant women should stay away from cats because their feces can cause birth defects, here’s the somewhat surprising answer: yes and no.
It turns out that cats do expel a parasite in their feces that can be harmful to a fetus. But this parasite is also easily contracted in other ways, not just through cats. And there are plenty of ways to prevent this parasite from affecting a fetus, so expectant mothers don't need to shoo away cats for fear of their babies' health.
Evidence for the health claim
Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a specific parasite which normally causes minimal symptoms or goes entirely undetected in most humans and animals. Cats spread the parasite via their feces after eating contaminated small animals like birds or rodents. While the cats are rarely affected by the infection, the parasites they expel are potentially dangerous to human pregnancy.
If a pregnant woman cleans an infected cat's litter box, she is exposed to the parasite. If the woman touches her mouth after coming in contact with the parasite, she may become infected and place her fetus at risk for serious complications, either at birth or later in life.
At or before birth, the parasite can cause serious eye infections or other eye problems, brain damage, or even stillbirth or miscarriage. And while many babies infected with toxoplasmosis may not exhibit any symptoms at first, they may eventually suffer from blindness or intellectual disability as a result.
Any cat let outdoors or fed raw or undercooked meat may also carry the parasite. Any contaminated feces from cats that have contracted the infection are a danger to a woman’s pregnancy.
Evidence against the health claim
Toxoplasmosis is not only spread in cat feces, but also through contaminated meat. A person is just as likely, if not more likely, to contract the infection by eating infected raw or undercooked meat. Even just handling the meat and failing to wash hands afterward can spread the infection.
Interestingly, if a woman contracts the infection prior to her pregnancy, she becomes immune and will not pass the infection to her fetus during pregnancy. A blood test can confirm if a woman has already been exposed to the parasite.
The chances of most women contracting the infection from their cat are fairly low. First, indoor cats fed commercially-packaged cat food have a very low risk of being exposed to the parasite. Most cats that carry the parasite are outdoor cats who feed on contaminated prey.
Women don't need to avoid cats and certainly don't need to give up their beloved pet if they are a cat owner. A few simple precautions can prevent the spread of the parasite, including special care when cleaning the litter box or avoiding it altogether. If you are pregnant, have someone else clean the litter box. But if you absolutely must do it yourself, you may reduce your risk by wearing disposable gloves and immediately and thoroughly washing your hands when you're finished.
While some cat feces do have the potential to cause serious or even fatal complications in a developing fetus, the fact remains that women do not need to avoid cats altogether during their pregnancy. Staying clear of the litter box will dramatically lower the risk of toxoplasmosis.
Furthermore, expectant mothers should not only be cautious around cat feces, but be careful when handling raw meat as well. The risk of toxoplasmosis infection is higher if pregnant women eat raw or undercooked meat, or handle raw meat without immediately washing their hands.
So when the joyous news of an upcoming arrival is announced, there's no need for Fluffy to pack her bags. Keep her indoors, only feed her prepackaged cat food and do your best to avoid her litter box.
-- Dr. Threvia West is a Maternal-Fetal Medicine Specialist with Maternal-Fetal Medicine Center, 4704 Ambassador Caffery Pkwy., Suite 302, Lafayette and the Women’s & Children’s Center, 1811 Rees St., Breaux Bridge. Call 337-443-6870 today for an appointment or to learn more.