If you’ve ever heard someone say you shouldn’t clean out the litter box when you’re pregnant, then you’ve heard someone verbally express their concern about toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by a single-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. But how does this relate to your cat’s dumping grounds? The virus can be ingested by cats who eat certain things, and the parasite still continues to live in their feces. There’s more than one way to contract the parasite though, such as accidental ingestion of undercooked, contaminated meat. Most of the time, our immune systems prevent the parasite from turning into an illness, but pregnant women and those with a compromised immune system are at a greater risk for serious health problems.
Toxoplasmosis – What is it and why should you care?
Like we’ve already said, toxoplasmosis is an illness caused by a single cell parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. It’s found throughout the world, but more than 60 million people in the U.S. alone may be infected with the parasite. Despite its high occurrence rate, the parasite is still relatively unknown because most people who are infected don’t show symptoms of being ill.
That being said, pregnant women and their unborn children are at a higher risk of contracting the illness and perhaps even serious health problems. Even if the mother doesn’t experience systems, the baby is at risk; most infected infants don’t exhibit symptoms at birth, but can develop serious symptoms later in life such as mental disability and blindness. In rare cases, serious eye or brain damage at birth can occur. The infection can be passed on to your unborn child while you are pregnant or if you were recently infected. Some experts suggest waiting at least 6 months before becoming pregnant if you experience toxoplasmosis.
How to Know if You’re Infected
If you suspect you may have been exposed to toxoplasma gondii (even if you aren’t experiencing symptoms), your healthcare provider may order one or more varieties of blood tests to check for antibodies to Toxoplasma. The results can help determine if you have a Toxoplasma gondii infection and whether it was recent or not.
How it’s Spread
A Toxoplasma infection can occur:
- Ingesting undercooked, contaminated meat (especially lamb, venison, and pork),
- Accidental ingestion after handling undercooked, contaminated meat and not washing your hands thoroughly (Toxoplasma cannot be absorbed through intact skin though),
- Drinking water contaminated the parasite,
- Mother-to-child (congenital) transmission
- Eating food that was contaminated by knives, utensils, cutting boards, and other foods that have come into contact with raw, contaminated meat,
- Accidentally swallowing the parasite through contact with cat feces that contain Toxoplasma. This can happen when:
- ingesting or touching anything that has come into contact with infected cat feces,
- cleaning a cat’s litter box when the cat has shed toxoplasma in its feces, and/or
- accidentally ingesting contaminated soil (such as eating unwashed fruits or vegetables from a garden and not washing hands after gardening).
Cats and Toxoplasma
Cats become infected by eating infected, small animals such as birds and rodents. The parasite then ends up in the cat’s feces and can continue to be present in their feces for as long as 3 weeks after infection. Mature cats are less likely to shed Toxoplasma but it’s not uncommon. Like humans, cat usually don’t experience symptoms when infected, so there isn’t a way to know if your cat is infected.
Don’t worry – you don’t need to give up your cat if you are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant. Just follow these guidelines to help reduce your risk of environmental exposure:
- Avoid cleaning out the litter box. If there isn’t anyone else who can perform this task, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.
- Make sure the cat litter box is changed daily. Since the parasite doesn’t become infectious until 1-5 days after it’s shed, this helps minimize risk.
- Do not feed your cat raw or undercooked meats and instead feed them commercial dry or canned cat food.
- Keep cats indoors and avoid strays, especially kittens.
- Do not get a new cat while you are pregnant.
- Keep outdoor sandboxes covered when not in use.
- Wear gloves when gardening and thoroughly wash hands afterwards. If you eat out of your garden, always thoroughly clean the produce.
If you still have concerns about your cat, the best professional to consult is your veterinarian. They’ll be able to answer any further questions or concern you have have regarding your car and risk for toxoplasmosis.
In addition, to these tips, you should also cook foods to safe temperatures, avoid drinking untreated water, peel or wash fruits/vegetables before eating, and wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, counters, and hands with hot soapy water after contact with raw meats or unwashed fruits/vegetables.
You should still continue breastfeeding because, among healthy women, the possibility of breast milk transmission is not likely. There have been no studies that document breast milk transmission in humans, but there is an association with infants who consumed unpasteurized goat’s milk. In humans, there is still a small chance, but the likelihood is very small. The slight risk is occurs in the event that a nursing woman experiences cracked and bleeding nipples or breast inflammation within the weeks following an acute infection and while the organism is still circulating in her bloodstream. This is more theoretical though.
Symptoms of Infection
Most people who become infected are not aware of it and do not experience any symptoms. If you do experience symptoms, they can vary from person to person and include:
- Flu-like symptoms with swollen lymph nodes or muscle aches and pains that last for a month or longer.
- Severe cases can result in damage to the brain, eyes, and other organs. This can result from an acute infection or one that occurred earlier in life and is now reactivated.
- Ocular toxoplasmosis symptoms can include blurred vision, reduced vision, pain, tearing, redness. For this form of the infect, an seeing ophthalmologist is the best option for care and treatment.
If you have a confirmed toxoplasmosis infection, you and your healthcare provider will decide if treatment is necessary or not. In an otherwise healthy, non-pregnant person, usually treatment isn’t needed and symptoms will go away on their own. In other cases, there are medications available to treat the infection.