Pregnancy problems and cats: Few facts, mainly fiction [Archives:2008/1162/Health]

May 9 2008

Alia Ishaq
An Ethiopian woman living in Sana'a (who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject) recounts that she had a cat when she was 7 years old and that this cat was the reason for her emotionally and physically painful miscarriage.

“All of my friends agree with me,” she says, “They told me my cat was the reason for my problems because they believe cats can be very dangerous for women who wish to have children in the future.”

The truth about cats

However, don't throw your pet out of the house just yet! The myth that keeping pet cats at anytime in a woman's life can cause fertility and pregnancy problems later on is just that: a myth.

But in reality, pregnant women do face a risk when handling cat feces, as well as when eating raw or undercooked meat.

According to researchers at the United States' University of California-Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, at some point in their life, cats may carry a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which may infect pregnant women and lead to a disease called toxoplasmosis.

Toxoplasmosis can cause fetal hydrocephalus, a disease believed to occur in approximately one in every 1,000 live births. There are no known incidences of adult hydrocephalus.

The most obvious indication of this illness is often the rapid increase in a baby's head circumference or an unusually large head size. Other symptoms a child suffering from hydrocephalus may exhibit include vomiting, sleepiness, irritability, downward deviation of the eyes and seizures. Most infected infants don't have symptoms at birth, but can develop serious symptoms later in life, such as blindness or mental disability.

Another result of toxoplasmosis is inflamma-tion of a fetus' brain, which in some cases can cause the mother to miscarry.

So, are cats truly hazardous to women and their ability to conceive and carry a child? Medical research says in most cases, “No.”

According to Dr. Fardoos Al-Bar, a Sana'a-based gynecologist with her own private practice, cats are only dangerous for women during their actual pregnancy – not before or after they conceive.

“The parasite goes directly to the baby and mainly damages his or her brain, causing disorders, while no symptoms appear in the mother,” Al-Bar explains.

She adds that the parasite doesn't attack only pregnant women, as everyone, including men, is susceptible to the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis.

If anything, girls and non-pregnant women with toxoplasmosis may even save their future children because if a girl or woman has toxoplasmosis and becomes immune to the parasite that caused it, her unborn child will be protected in the womb because of her immunity.

Avoiding the toxoplasmosis parasite

Al-Bar warns that the Toxoplasma gondii parasite also is found in many other mammals, including chickens, which are commonly raised by rural Yemeni women. Researchers at UC- Davis confirm this information and have reported cases where the parasite was spread by birds.

In fact, the most common way to become infected with toxoplasmosis isn't through cats at all. If anyone – humans or animals – eats raw or undercooked meat, they are susceptible to toxoplasmosis infection.

The UC-Davis researchers further noted that the Toxoplasma gondii parasite also may be transmitted by accidentally ingesting cat feces, which occurs after cleaning up cat litter and then touching your mouth unknowingly. Kittens and cats shed millions of these parasites in their feces for as much as three weeks after they've been infected, although mature cats are less likely to shed Toxoplasma gondii.

However, UC-Davis researchers stress that it's not necessary for women to get rid of their beloved pet cats while pregnant.

Instead, pregnant women simply should avoid all contact with cat feces, keep their cats indoors and feed them a diet of commercially-bought cat food. Researchers also recommend wearing rubber gloves while gardening in outdoor soil, which may be contaminated with cat feces. Additionally, pregnant women also should avoid eating raw or undercooked meat.

Pregnant women do have treatment options

Most humans with toxoplasmosis show no symptoms of sickness, which makes treating expectant mothers very difficult.

Al-Bar says that although the disease usually isn't easily diagnosed, certain tests are available that can determine whether a pregnant woman has toxoplasmosis. If the woman does indeed have toxoplasmosis, she may take medication for it, which also protects her unborn child.

“After the mother takes the medicine, we monitor her condition as we ask her to undergo certain tests while she's pregnant that can prove whether the medicine is effective or not,” Al-Bar says, adding, “However, in cases where the disease is discovered within the first three months, we recommend the mother undergo abortive procedures.”


To avoid contracting toxoplasmosis while pregnant, experts suggest:

* Get a blood test to check for Toxoplasma gondii antibodies at the time of pregnancy, as this will allow the doctor to know if the mother and child are immune to the disease.

*Avoid changing cat litter if possible, but if you must do so, use rubber gloves.

*Change the litter box daily, as the Toxoplasma gondii parasite doesn't become infectious until one to five days after being shed in cat feces.

*Cook food to high temperatures for an adequate amount of time to kill any bacteria that might be lurking in meat.