Your Pet Could Expose You to This Parasite, but There Are Much Bigger Threats

pregnant woman with cat

Story at-a-glance -

  • Many pregnant women with cats receive misguided advice to give up their pets to avoid a toxoplasmosis infection; this is absolutely unnecessary
  • Cats are the primary hosts for toxoplasma, but humans typically acquire the infection through raw or undercooked meat, unwashed fruits and vegetables, and contaminated water or soil
  • Toxoplasmosis in pets can be acute or chronic; the acute form often results in symptoms, whereas the chronic form is a low-grade disease that is asymptomatic
  • Non-life-threatening cases of chronic toxoplasmosis can often be successfully treated with natural remedies
  • In households with cats, human family members, including pregnant women, should follow certain common sense precautions to avoid potential exposure to toxoplasma

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Sadly, many female cat parents are mistakenly told they must give up their pet if or when they become pregnant, because kitties are the primary hosts for the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, which can cause a disease called toxoplasmosis. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 60 million people in the U.S. alone may be infected with the parasite.1

The good news is that people with healthy immune systems experience only mild symptoms, if any, from the infection. The bad news is that during pregnancy, toxoplasmosis can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and severe eye and nervous system problems in the baby. However, according to veterinarian Dr. Susan Nelson of Kansas State University’s Veterinary Health Center, “Toxoplasmosis is a devastating disease, but with proper precautions, a woman does not need to rehome her cat if she becomes pregnant.”

I certainly agree and have always reassured my pregnant clients that there’s absolutely no need to give up feline family members as long as they follow a commonsense protocol (more about that shortly) in caring for their pets and themselves while pregnant.

It’s True — Kitties Are the Primary Hosts for the Parasite That Causes Toxoplasmosis

The T. gondii parasite is found in a wide variety of birds and mammals, but it can only reproduce inside cats. Estimates are that 30 percent of cats and dogs and a fair amount of humans in the U.S. have been exposed. But while exposure to the parasite is fairly common, infection and clinical disease is rare.

The most common route of exposure for kitties is through contact with infected prey, typically rodents and birds. Once inside a cat's intestines, T. gondii produces millions of oocysts that complete their life cycle in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and re-enter the environment in the cat's poop.

Oocysts can live more than 18 months in soil and water, which is how the parasite is transmitted to animals such as rodents, sheep and pigs. Bottom line — unless your cat is free-roaming (which I certainly don’t recommend), there’s little chance she’ll ever contract the parasite.

How Most Humans Acquire the Infection

Cats are actually only one source of several avenues of a toxoplasma infection, and in fact, cat ownership isn't even a common way for humans to acquire toxoplasmosis. According to veterinary publication dvm360:

"… [Y]es, cats do shed the parasites in their stool. But the chances of the pathogens being passed on to humans are slimmer than most people have been led to believe by hyped-up media reports."2

In the U.S., humans are most often exposed to T. gondii through raw or undercooked meat, unwashed fruits and veggies, and contaminated water or soil. Animals are exposed by eating contaminated meat, ingesting contaminated feces or water, or through congenital infection across the placenta.

I've only seen one case of toxoplasmosis in my veterinary career, and it was in a dog, not a cat. The dog had eaten freshly hunted rabbit meat. I always recommend freezing fresh game before feeding the meat to a pet. Here’s a guide to freezing meat for 24 hours kill toxoplasma.

Symptoms of a Toxoplasma Infection

Most cats are infected across the placenta or by nursing. Many of these kittens are stillborn or die shortly after birth. Those that survive often suffer from inflammation of the brain, lungs or liver. Toxoplasmosis in adult cats is rare. The infection is typically seen in cats never exposed to T. gondii, those who sustain an overwhelming exposure to the parasite or kitties with compromised immune systems.

Toxoplasmosis in pets can be acute or chronic. The acute form usually results in symptoms; often the chronic form is a low-grade disease that is asymptomatic. More cats than dogs show symptoms of infection. And although any dog can be infected by the parasite, it’s usually seen in young dogs with immature or compromised immune systems. There can be multiple symptoms of a toxoplasma infection, including:

Seizures

Fever

Tremors

Weight loss

Depression

Loss of appetite

Lethargy

Vomiting

Muscle weakness

Diarrhea

Loss of coordination

Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)

Paralysis

Inflammation of the tonsils

Shortness of breath

Inflammation of the retina, iris or cornea

Diagnosis and Treatment of Toxoplasmosis in Pets

The best way to diagnose toxoplasmosis is to measure the existence of antibodies to the organism with the toxoplasma IgG and IgM antibody test. Other helpful diagnostic tests can include a complete blood count, blood chemistry panel, urinalysis, fecal analysis, an eye exam, an ELISA test, chest X-rays, cerebrospinal fluid analysis, and analysis of chest or abdominal fluid.

Treatment of serious cases of toxoplasmosis includes fighting the infection, controlling seizures, supportive care for affected organ systems and intravenous (IV) fluids as necessary. Non-life-threatening cases of chronic toxoplasmosis can be treated with a variety of natural remedies including barberry and berberine HCL, Otoba bark extract, Cinchona extract and olive leaf extract. Ozone therapy may also be beneficial for chronically ill patients.

10 Common Sense Steps to Prevent Infection

  1. If you’re pregnant and share your home with one or more kitties, consider assigning litterbox chores to someone else in the family for the duration of your pregnancy
  2. Wear disposable gloves to clean the litterbox and also a face mask if you happen to be immunosuppressed
  3. Keep the litterbox in pristine condition; the longer infected cat poop sits in there, the higher the risk that the eggs of the parasite will become infective
  4. If you also have a dog, make sure he doesn’t snack on cat poop
  5. Don’t allow your cat to roam freely outdoors; in good weather, either walk him with a harness and leash, or give him access to a secure outdoor enclosure (catio)
  6. Freeze meats for several days before thawing them to feed your cat (or cooking them for your family); peel or wash fruits and vegetables before eating
  7. As always, use soap and hot water to wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, counters and hands after they come in contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood, and unwashed fruits or vegetables
  8. Cover outdoor sandboxes when not in use to keep kitties from using them as litterboxes
  9. Wear gloves when gardening or doing yard work, or whenever you may come in contact with soil or sand that could be contaminated with cat feces; wash your hands thoroughly afterwards
  10. Avoid handling or adopting stray or unknown cats while pregnant, and keep in mind kittens are at an especially high risk of shedding T. gondii oocysts

Bottom line: If you’re pregnant, there’s absolutely no need to give up your beloved cat as long as you take common sense precautions to prevent a toxoplasmosis infection