Ignore This Well-Intentioned but Misguided Advice for Your Pet's Well-Being

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pregnant women and cats

Story at-a-glance -

  • Pregnant women with cats continue to receive misguided advice to give up their pets to avoid a toxoplasmosis infection
  • Realistically, the only way indoor-only adult cats can be exposed to the Toxoplasma gondii parasite is by encountering an infected rodent inside the home
  • While it’s true that cats are the only known host for the parasite, most humans are actually exposed by other means, most commonly, raw meat
  • Expectant mothers with cats can avoid a toxoplasma infection by taking common-sense precautions during pregnancy

Some old wives' tales have nine lives, including the one about pregnant women and cats. Expectant moms continue to receive advice from the well-intentioned but misguided to get rid of their beloved pets to avoid contracting a toxoplasmosis infection. This persistent misconception gives feline companions an undeserved bad rap, and worse, it can potentially cause expectant parents to relinquish their kitties to shelters.

Toxoplasmosis is caused by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, which is found in a variety of birds and mammals. However, T. gondii can only reproduce inside the bodies of cats, which are the only known host. Estimates are that about 30 percent of cats and dogs in the U.S. have been exposed to the parasite, and according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 60 million people in the U.S. may be infected with the parasite.1

Fortunately, people with healthy immune systems experience only mild symptoms, if any, from the infection. However, during pregnancy, toxoplasmosis can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and severe eye and nervous system problems in the baby. It's worth noting that If you've been infected by the parasite in the past, repeat exposure during pregnancy won't cause a problem.2 You can even get tested for exposure as soon as you learn you're pregnant to know how concerned you need to be.

While toxoplasmosis can be devastating to women who are pregnant, employing a few common-sense precautions is all that's required to stay safe. I have always reassured my pregnant clients that there's absolutely no need to give up feline family members as long as they follow a common-sense protocol (more about that shortly) in caring for their pets and themselves while pregnant.

Cats and Toxoplasmosis

Cats are most often exposed through contact with infected wild prey such as rodents and birds. Once inside kitty's intestines, T. gondii produces millions of resilient, thick-walled oocysts that complete their life cycle in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and re-enter the environment in cat poop.

Oocysts can live more than 18 months in soil and water, which is how the parasite comes into contact with animals such as rodents, sheep and pigs. Realistically, the only way indoor-only cats can contract the T. gondii parasite is if they encounter an infected rodent inside the house. Fact: Unless your cat is free-roaming (not recommended!), there's little chance she'll ever contract the parasite.

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

Most Cases of Toxoplasmosis in Humans Aren't Cat-Related

While it's a fact that cats are one source of toxoplasma infections, the truth is cat ownership isn't a common way for humans to acquire toxoplasmosis. According to veterinary journal 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."3

I've personally only seen one case of toxoplasmosis in my veterinary career, and it was in a dog, not a cat, who had eaten freshly hunted rabbit meat. Due to the potential presence of T. gondii and many other pathogens, I always recommend freezing fresh game before feeding the meat to a pet. Freezing meat for 24 hours kill toxoplasma.

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.

Common Sense Precautions to Avoid Infection

  1. If you're pregnant and have one or more kitties, if possible, hand off litterbox chores to someone else in the family for the duration of your pregnancy
  2. Wear disposable gloves to clean the litterbox, as well as a face mask if you're 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
  6. Freeze meats for several days before thawing 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, sand or water 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

If you're pregnant, there's absolutely no need to give up your beloved cat as long as you take sensible precautions to prevent a toxoplasmosis infection.

Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment of Toxoplasmosis in Pets

Infection 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:


Muscle weakness




Loss of coordination

Weight loss




Loss of appetite

Inflammation of the tonsils


Shortness of breath


Inflammation of the retina, iris, cornea

The most accurate 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 involves fighting the infection, controlling seizures, providing 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.

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