Why Cats Might Be Risky During Pregnancy

Keep away from kitty's litter when expecting.


Q: I've heard cats can be risky during pregnancy. Why is this?

A: You might be referring to toxoplasmosis, an infection caused by a parasite that can be transmitted through cat feces. Though the infection typically causes only a mild flulike illness, it can pose serious problems during pregnancy.

"If you are infected with the parasite while pregnant, it can pass through the placenta and attack the fetus's nervous system," explains Maryam Tarsa, M.D., an associate clinical professor of perinatal medicine at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine in La Jolla, Calif. "Blindness, brain abnormalities and developmental abnormalities can result."

While the disease does pose significant risks, it's important to note that it is rare: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are an estimated 400 to 4,000 cases of congenital toxoplasmosis (in which the fetus is infected) per year in the U.S. What's more, if you've had the disease before, there is a very good chance that you are now immune to it, as your body produces antibodies to the parasite.

Still, to be on the safe side, ask someone else to handle the litterbox duties for the duration of your pregnancy; or, at a minimum, wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly after cleaning the box. the parasite also can live in soil, so be sure to wear gloves while gardening, and wash fruit and vegetables before eating them.

But perhaps most important: avoid raw or undercooked meat, as they are the most common source of the parasite; also be aware that shellfish can be a source. Be sure to cook all meats and shellfish to at least 155° F before eating.