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Keeping Cats and the Risk of Toxoplasmosis When Pregnant: A case Study

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 24 Mar 2010 | comments*Discuss
 
Toxoplasmosis Cats Pregnant Women

When Anna learnt that she was pregnant, she was delighted with the news and hurried to share it with her friends and family. She was horrified, however, when many of them started warning her about her beloved Burmese cat, Bella.

“They all told me I had to get rid of Bella,” she recounts. “It was horrible. My mother kept telling me about this disease that cats can carry called Toxoplasmosis – it’s supposed to be really dangerous to babies in the womb and can cause growth defects and abnormalities and stuff like that. But I just couldn’t give Bella away! She was part of the family too!”

Researching Toxoplasmosis

Distraught, Anna and her husband, Jim, decided to find out more about Toxoplasmosis, to see if there were any precautions they could take which would enable to keep their beloved cat. They learnt that the disease is caused by a protozoan parasite called Toxoplasma gondii which infects cats when they swallow the cysts in contaminated soil. Cats can also become infected if they hunt: the birds and small mammals that they hunt are also carriers of the parasite. The parasite then develops in the wall of the cat’s intestine where it releases its own cysts, which then contaminate the cats faeces.

“Actually, the cats themselves usually don’t show any symptoms of disease,” explains Anna, “although some do exhibit general poor health and eye problems. The real worry is when the parasite is transmitted to people. Even then, it’s not really a problem most of the time – in fact, we found out that in the US, up to 20% of the population carry the parasite and they don’t show any signs of infection.”

The only 2 times the parasite was really dangerous, Anna and Jim discovered, was when it infected people with weakened immune systems, such as young children or those with certain medical conditions, or when it infected pregnant women.

“It’s actually pretty serious if a foetus gets infected in the womb, especially in the first trimester,” says Anna. “The baby can get brain damage or other serious developmental defects, mental retardation, seizures, miscarriage or premature births. Even if they are born normal, they can develop illness later in life.”

Taking Precautions

However, Anna and Jim were also relieved to find out that this did not mean pregnant women could not own cats. As long they took some precautions, there would be no need for Bella to be rehomed. These precautions included having Jim or another person change the litter tray, or if Anna did have to clean the litter tray, then she should wear gloves and wash her hands thoroughly afterwards. Daily changing of the litter tray would reduce the risk even more and Anna was also to avoid handling any stray cats.

“It was such a relief because I was heartbroken at the thought of losing Bella, so it was great to find a way to work around it,” recalls Anna. And in fact, the couple were interested to find a piece of research done at an European mutli-centre which showed that most pregnant women become infected from eating undercooked meat (30-63%) or touching contaminated soil (17%), rather than from contact with cats – in fact, the studies concluded that contact with cats and cat faeces was not a significant risk factor for infection. Nevertheless, they decided it was best to take all precautions.

Eight months later, Anna and Jim were delighted to welcome their new member of the family – a healthy, normal baby – and introduce him to Bella.

“Our family and friends were a bit disapproving at first when we decided to keep Bella but they came round when we explained all the research we’d done and what precautions we were planning to take. And they could see the proof that keeping a cat while I was pregnant didn’t prevent me from having a healthy, normal baby!” smiles Anna.

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