When a woman becomes or is trying to get pregnant , there is a long list of precautions, such as no cigarettes, cutting back on caffeine, and either avoiding or greatly limiting the amount of alcohol.
But one piece of advice is commonly misunderstood: how to avoid toxoplasmosis.
Toxoplasmosis is caused by parasitic protozoa Toxoplasma gondii. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , it is estimated that 22.5 percent of the U.S. population 12 years and older have been infected with Toxoplasma. A cat who gets the parasite passes it through the feces in oocyst form, but once a cat is infected it typically acquires immunity. A cat with the symptoms and diagnosis of toxoplasmosis can be treated with antibiotics.
Yet cats are often surrendered to shelters when a woman becomes pregnant, an act that is unnecessary, experts say.
"It's far more risky for a pregnant mother to eat raw or undercooked meat, drink unfiltered water, or travel to countries with poor sanitation/higher endemic toxoplasmosis risk than it is for them to take care of their cats," says John Cmar, M.D., internist at Sinai Hospital . "For someone with a normal immune system with established cats that aren't interacting with the outdoor milieu, the risk of being exposed to an active infection via contact with cat feces that your immune system didn't catch and prevent from circulating to the fetus is vastly small."
If the mother-to-be is worried, it's considered reasonable to ask one's partner or other family member to deal with the litter box. That's what Teresa Frost did. She is due in April, and adopted 1-year-old feline Madeline in January. She also has a 13-year-old three-legged calico cat named Hopey.
"Everyone has their own sensitivities," Frost says. "Tim, my husband, took over the litter box as soon as we started to try to get pregnant, and he's been doing it since then. I did talk to my doctor about the cats and she didn't have any concerns."
In fact, her cats have been a comfort when her pregnancy caused her to feel under the weather.
"When I got pregnant we still had Hopey's brother, who has since died, and they were both very sensitive to me when I was sick," Frost continues. "They were very in tune with what was going on. I didn't feel well at first and so they'd come and cuddle with me. They'd put my paws on my belly."
There are situations where a woman may be the only one who can deal with the litter box, which is why hand washing is important, Cmar says. It's also a good idea to keep a cat indoors and to give it canned or commercial cat food, as opposed to sending it outside to hunt down fresh meat.
"If the litter is changed daily, things should be fine (fresh feces are not infectious), and can be done safely by the mother with thorough hand washing after," Cmar says. "Playing or cuddling with a known and established cat carries essentially no risk."