Toxoplasmosis is one of the most common small animal zoonoses. Approximately 30 to 40% of the adults in the world have been infected at some point.
Potential effects of toxoplasmosis on a pregnancy
If you are exposed to toxoplasmosis in the first trimester of pregnancy, the chances of infection in the developing fetus are small, but serious. At this stage of pregnancy, infection in the fetus may result in severe birth defects or miscarriage.
In the second or third trimester of pregnancy, the fetus is more likely to be infected if exposed to the disease, but the disease is less likely to cause fatalities. If affected, the fetus could experience: premature birth, low birth weight, fever, jaundice, abnormalities of the retina, abnormal head size, convulsions, or brain calcification.
How do I protect myself and my baby?
Although it is uncommon, toxoplasmosis can be passed to humans through contaminated cat feces. However, this does not mean that you should not be around cats if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant.
The parasites are not infectious when first passed by cats in their feces. The cysts do not become infectious for 1 - 5 days after being passed, which is why daily cat box cleaning is recommended. Most cats are fastidious about cleaning and do not leave feces on their fur; therefore, common contact with a cat is not a risk factor.
You may want to consider being tested for the antibodies to toxoplasmosis prior to becoming pregnant. If you have already been exposed and developed antibodies to the infection, you cannot be reinfected. Regardless of your immunity status, however, it's always best to practice prevention. With proper precautions, the infection can be avoided:
- It is important to note that it is more common to be exposed to the disease by eating uncooked or undercooked meat or unwashed vegetables that may harbor the parasite than by contact with your cat or its litter box.
- Avoid undercooked meat if you are pregnant and do not feed raw or undercooked meat to your cat at any time.
- Do not using a knife exposed to raw meat on cooked meat.
- If you are pregnant, have another person clean out the litter box every day.
- Even when you are not pregnant, make sure your cat's litter boxes are cleaned daily.
- Try to keep your cat indoors, especially if your cat tends to hunt rodents or birds, which is often how cats are exposed to the disease.
- Keep your cat off countertops where food is prepared.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with running water and soap after any contact with cat feces.
- Wear gloves while gardening and wash your hands when you are through, as the parasite can be deposited in the soil by infected neighborhood cats.
What are the symptoms of toxoplasmosis?
Most people who get toxoplasmosis do not get sick, but some people will get swollen glands, muscle aches and feel as though they have the "flu." If you are pregnant, experience these symptoms and have reason to suspect you have been exposed to toxoplasmosis, consult your obstetrician immediately. Medication may be given in certain circumstances. Knowledge of the infection is important, as it may affect your baby's care and treatment after birth.
What should I do if I suspect my cat has toxoplasmosis?
If you are concerned that your cat may have been exposed to, or has contracted, toxoplasmosis, consult your veterinarian. Most cats do not become ill from toxoplasmosis unless they are immunocompromised. Currently, there is no vaccine against the disease, but a vaccine is in research to prevent it from being shed through the cat's feces.