Ask the Vet: While Pregnant, Keep Cat, but Avoid Toxoplasmosis
Q: I am planning to become pregnant, and a friend says I should give away my cat, Myrtle, because she can transmit a disease that could harm my unborn child. Is this true?
A: Rest assured that you may keep Myrtle. It sounds like your friend is referring to toxoplasmosis, nicknamed "toxo," a disease caused by a one-celled protozoal parasite called Toxoplasma.
If you are among the approximately 30% of the population who's already been exposed to Toxoplasma, you have antibodies that will protect your unborn child from the disease. Your health care provider can check your antibody levels and advise you.
If you do not have antibodies to Toxoplasma, you should take steps to prevent infection during pregnancy, since it can increase the risk of miscarriage, eye problems and brain damage in your unborn child.
Fortunately, it's easy to prevent infection once you know a little about Toxoplasma.
A cat gets infected by ingesting the organism encysted in the muscles of a rodent, bird or other animal. To prevent this, confine Myrtle indoors to keep her from eating wildlife, and feed her commercially processed cat food, not raw food.
Cats with toxo rarely show signs of infection. However, they do excrete noninfectious Toxoplasma eggs, called oocysts (OH'-oh-sists), in their feces during the first few weeks after they're infected.
More than one day is required for the oocysts to become infective, so you should scoop Myrtle's litter boxes at least once daily. Wear a mask and disposable gloves, and wash your hands afterward. Or, better yet, have another adult scoop the litter boxes.
Oocysts excreted into sand and soil are a risk, so cover sandboxes when not in use, and wash hands after outdoor play. Wear gloves while gardening; wash hands afterward; and wash all fruits, vegetables and herbs before eating them.
Undercooked animal muscle, unpasteurized milk and cheese made from raw milk are important sources of Toxoplasma exposure. Use a food thermometer to ensure that meat, poultry, fish and shellfish are cooked thoroughly, and don't taste food until it's fully cooked. Wash cutting boards and utensils in hot, soapy water, and always wash your hands before eating.