Feline Toxoplasmosis and Pregnancy: Do I Need To Give Up My Cat?
My daughter just gave birth to her first child the other day — a very happy occasion for sure. It made me think about how trends can come and go over the years: formula feeding vs. breast feeding, bulky crib bumpers vs. lighter weight crib liners, using cloth or disposal diapers — which is truly more environmentally friendly — to swaddle or not to swaddle? The list is endless.
At one time obstetricians were even in the habit of advising pregnant women to get rid of their cats! Today we know that such a drastic step is unnecessary, but the reason behind that recommendation is still worth discussing.
The concern was over a zoonotic disease transmitted between cats and people called toxoplasmosis. We now understand a lot more about the life cycle of the organism, modes of transmission (it’s not just cats), and the risk of infection so we can be much more specific and rational when advising pregnant women.
Some sort of guidance does, however, need to be provided. I stress this because apparently my daughter’s obstetrician never even asked if she had pets. That is, unfortunately, a swing of the pendulum too far in the other direction.
Toxoplasmosis in cats
The toxoplasma organism is a microscopic coccidian that only reaches reproductive stages in the cat but can exist in its immature stages in other mammals and birds. Unfortunately, these immature stages can still cause damage and inflammation in the affected host. This rarely happens in adults with healthy immune systems but can be a significant problem in the case of congenital infection of a baby where the result can be stillbirth, birth defects, neurologic or ocular diseases. This was why worried obstetricians were advocating that pregnant women got rid of their cats entirely. [Editor's note: Giving up your cat is not necessary! Some simple precautionary measures (detailed below and identified by talking with your obsterician) can keep your whole family safe and happy. Even the U.S. Center for Disease Control agrees that pregant cat owners do not need to give up their pets. Read the CDC's report here.]
The high incidence of the disease in cats only added to previous concerns over toxoplasma. According to the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC), studies in the United States indicate a mean seroprevalence (cats with evidence of past exposure to the toxoplasma organism) runs about 40%. That’s a lot;