Q: Why are pregnant women not supposed to change the kitty litter?
A: Expecting moms deserve all the help they can get! Changing the litter box can expose humans to a parasite called toxoplasma gondii (toxo). If a pregnant woman touches cat feces that contain toxo, she could become infected and pass it along to her little one. Babies in the womb are more vulnerable to certain infections, and they depend on mothers to protect them. So the litter box is one chore that should definitely be delegated during pregnancy.
How Cats Get Toxo
Cats catch the disease by eating rodents, birds or other small critters that are infected. They can also get toxo by eating anything contaminated by feces from an infected cat. Cats with toxo may appear perfectly healthy. Following infection, a cat can release the parasite in its feces for up to three weeks.
Beyond the Litter Box
Wherever an infected cat has defecated, the parasite can thrive for many months. This means that soil, sandboxes, grass and litter boxes can be contaminated for months at a time. Vegetables and fruits grown in contaminated soil can also carry the disease.
In order for humans to catch the disease, they must make physical contact with something infected by the parasite and then transfer it to their mouth. Most of us touch our mouths with unwashed hands time and time again during the day without even realizing it. Here are some common ways that humans get infected with toxo:
- Changing the litter box of an infected cat, then accidentally touching unwashed hands to the mouth.
- Eating unwashed fruits or vegetables grown in contaminated soil or drinking contaminated water. Gardening without gloves, then inadvertently touching unwashed hands to the mouth can transfer soil contaminated by cat feces.
- Eating raw or undercooked meat from infected animals or touching unwashed hands to the mouth after handling uncooked meat. Utensils such as knives, cutting boards and other items can become contaminated by contact with raw meats or their juices. Toxo can live in the flesh of animals that have eaten something contaminated by cat feces. Pigs, lamb and deer are especially vulnerable.
Signs & Symptoms
Most people who have toxo do not know it. If symptoms do occur, they are usually mild. Some people feel like they have the flu, with muscle aches and pains that last for weeks, along with swollen lymph glands. Rarely, toxo can infect the eye. People with a weak immune system, such as those living with HIV, could experience headache, confusion, fever, seizures, poor coordination, nausea or vomiting.
Infants who were infected while in the womb may show no symptoms at birth. However, as they grow and develop, vision loss, seizures and mental disabilities could emerge. If a woman was infected with toxo long before she becomes pregnant, her own immune system may have developed protection against the disease, which might also protect her baby. However, if an expecting mom becomes infected with toxo for the first time while she is pregnant, her immune system may not respond in time to protect the baby in the womb. So, pregnancy is not the ideal time to get a new cat.
How to Avoid Toxoplasmosis
The following tips will help expecting moms protect their babies:
- Have someone who is not pregnant and who has a healthy immune system change litter boxes. Change them daily. Toxo takes more than one day to become infectious, so frequent changes will reduce the chance that infection can spread. If there is absolutely no alternative for a pregnant woman, wear thick rubber gloves and wash your hands with soap and water immediately after changing the litter box; however, it is far better to delegate this chore.
- Keep indoor cats indoors to reduce their chances of getting infected by eating small animals outside. Never feed raw meat to your cats — they could become infected by eating contaminated meat.
- Avoid stray cats, especially kittens. Younger cats that are infected are more likely to release the parasite in their feces. Do not bring into your home a new cat that might have spent time outdoors or eaten raw meat.
- Wear gloves while gardening and wash your hands afterward. Wash your hands after touching soil, sand or unwashed vegetables. Wash and peel fruits and vegetables. Cats often use gardens and sandboxes as litter boxes. Cover outdoor sandboxes when they are not in use.
- Do not eat raw or undercooked meat. Cook meat to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit, until it is no longer pink in the center and the juices lose their pinkness. Do not taste meat until it is fully cooked.
- Wash with hot soapy water all kitchen utensils, including cutting boards and knives, that have contacted raw meat or their juices. Wash your hands immediately after touching raw meat.
- Avoid drinking untreated water, especially in less developed countries.
- There is a treatment for toxoplasmosis that can be given during pregnancy to protect the mother and baby. However, special monitoring is required during the pregnancy and the baby’s early life to check for complications.
For more information about toxo and other parasites, check out the CDC at http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/toxoplasmosis/index.html.
Wishing you the best of health,