Don’t you just cringe when you hear “I’m pregnant and my doctor told me to get rid of my cats to protect my baby’s brain.” Haven’t you wondered if the fear of brain damage from exposure to toxoplasmosis was a bunch of hooey from doctors who feel they need to dish out caution to nervous expectant mothers to make themselves look smart? Us too! We found some statistics that shoot that antiquated theory out of the sky and asked our Feline Contributing Editor At Large, Sir Isaac Newton, to chime in with the facts and figures to spill the beans on this situation. Spoiler alert: the studies were seriously flawed, babies are safe!
Speaking of babies – in a few weeks Auntie Cat Faerie will be visiting the ASPCA in New York City to see, in particular, their stellar Kitten Rehab. It’s where abandoned kittens, kitten literally found on the streets, hundreds of them per year, are bottle fed and taught proper toilet habits by loving and caring saintly humans. They are willing to keep these kitten’s cute baby butts nice and clean while they grow and learn to do it themselves. Stay tuned for the story!
Newton’s Purrspective – Toxoplasmosis
Cats have not always been popular house pets. Perhaps you’ve heard the old wives’ tale that cats smother babies or suck the air out of their lungs. Today few believe in this witchery. It is far more likely that cats in a baby’s crib are seeking warmth or are attracted to the scent of milk. However, some doctors still tell expectant mothers that they should get rid of their beloved pets as a health precaution. The fear today is not focused on a devilish feline behavior, but on a single celled parasite Toxoplasma gondii (the cause of Toxoplasmosis) carried by cats.
But cats are not alone. Toxoplasmosis is one of the most common parasitic diseases, affecting nearly all warm blooded animals, including humans. The CDC estimates that as many as 60 million Americans carry this parasite, but few show signs of clinical disease. A healthy immune system is able to prevent illness due to the presence of Toxoplasma.
Most people who are infected are unaware. Some may have flu like symptoms such as swollen lymph glands accompanied by muscle aches. Severe Toxoplasmosis (usually found only in people with immune deficiency) can cause damage to the eyes or brain. Treatment is available and is patient specific.
Early in the 1950’s scientists started looking at the potential relationship between Toxoplasmosis and psychotic symptoms such as those seen in schizophrenia. They hypothesized that owning a cat could increase the risk of mental disorders. We now know that the early studies were flawed. Controls were inadequate and alternate explanations were not considered. Although in rare cases Toxoplasmosis can damage the brain, current investigations reveal no higher risk of psychosis for those who share their homes with cats. http://www.livescience.com/57978-cats-psychosis.html
Cats are singled out because they are the only definitive hosts for Toxoplasma gondii. The parasite completes its life cycle inside a cat’s intestines and eggs are shed in the feces for up to two weeks. Most cats will not show symptoms unless their immune system is compromised due to age or diseases such as Feline Leukemia or Feline Immunodeficiency Virus. Cats are not routinely tested for Toxoplasmosis and the only prevention is to avoid ingesting the parasite. http://www.vet.cornell.edu/fhc/Health_Information/brochure_toxo.cfm
Toxoplasma must be ingested or transferred directly. It cannot be absorbed through intact skin or inhaled. According to the CDC there are a number of ways for this to occur in humans.
- Eating undercooked meat (especially pork, lamb, and venison) contaminated with Toxoplasma.
- Not thoroughly washing hands after contact with infected meat and accidentally ingesting the parasite.
- Eating food contaminated by utensils, etc. have been in contact with raw, contaminated meat.
- Drinking water contaminated with Toxoplasma.
- Accidental ingestion due to not thoroughly washing hands after:
- cleaning a litter box used by a cat that has shed Toxoplasma
- gardening without wearing gloves
- Eating unwashed garden fruits or vegetables
- Mother-to-child transmission during pregnancy https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/toxoplasmosis/gen_info/faqs.html
Pregnant women, or people with weak immune systems need not worry that they will be forced to part with their beloved cats. Indoor only cats pose a smaller risk since they are less likely to come in contact with Toxoplasma. However, use common sense and avoid cleaning the litter box or, if you must, wear gloves. Always wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.
There is actually a benefit to keeping Kitty when you are pregnant. Cats can improve health in young children. The chief of the allergic mechanisms section at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Marshall Plaut, MD says “high pet exposure early in life appears to protect against not only pet allergy but also other types of common allergies, such as allergy to dust mites, ragweed, and grass.” http://mentalfloss.com/article/51154/10-scientific-benefits-being-cat-owner