Cats are extremely popular pets (not to mention extremely popular memes, but that is another subject). If you have a cat and if you read the instructions on the container of cat litter, you might notice that it warns pregnant women and anyone with a weakened immune system not to handle used litter and even to avoid changing the litter entirely.
This is an important warning. It is there because used kitty litter can spread a disease called toxoplasomosis. The parasite is called Toxoplasma gondii and you can become infected with it by handling cat feces and then later touching your mouth.
Usually toxoplasmosis has no symptoms. You become infected with the parasite, your body fights off the infection, and you become immune to toxoplasmosis. Some people may develop symptoms that are similar to a bout of the flu if they become infected, and they have a fever, muscle aches, and swollen glands, but it is still not a big problem. However, someone who is immune compromised, such as a person with an organ transplant or who is undergoing chemotherapy, may become very sick from toxoplasmosis.
The infection is very common. About 9% of adults in the United States have antibodies to the parasite, which means that they have been infected in the past.
However, if a woman becomes infected with toxoplasmosis just before or during her pregnancy, there can be serious consequences. The infection can pass through the placenta to the baby. It can cause eye infections and brain damage at birth, or can lead to blindness, hearing problems, and mental disabilities later in life. Although a blood test can be done to tell if you have had toxoplasmosis already, this test is not commonly done for pregnant women.
Toxoplasmosis can be treated with antibiotics during pregnancy. If your baby has become infected, he or she can be treated with antibiotics as well.
Toxoplasma gondii can also be found in under cooked meat (especially under cooked pork or beef) or unpasteurized milk (especially goat milk). Pregnant women should not eat meat that has not been cooked thoroughly.
Cats become infected with the toxoplasma parasites if they eat infected birds or small mammals. They then excrete the parasites in their feces. This is why pregnant women are warned not to handle used kitty litter.
If you have a cat, you do not have to do anything as drastic as getting rid of it. Just take precautions. If you at all possible, get someone else to clean and change the litter box. If no one else is available, wear disposable gloves while you clean the box and throw them away afterward. Then wash your hands well in warm soapy water.
Make sure the litter box is cleaned daily. If your cat is carrying the parasite, the feces are not infectious until a couple of days after they are excreted.
Keep your cat indoors and feed him or her commercial cat food rather than raw or under cooked meat.
If there are several cats in your neighborhood, they are probably pooping in your garden. Wear gloves while you garden and during any contact with soil or sand. Wash your hands well with warm soapy water after you garden. If your children have a sandbox, keep it covered to prevent cats from using it as a litter box.
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You may also want to read a related post in Pregistry’s blog: The 9 Maternal Infections That Can Harm Your Developing Baby – and How to Avoid Them.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Parasites –Toxoplasmosis (toxoplasma infections).
WebMD. Pregnancy and toxoplasmosis.