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Are Cats a Threat to Pregnancy?

I've just learned that I'm pregnant. My husband says that we should get rid of our two cats because they could endanger my pregnancy. I suspect this is an old wives tale. Is there anything to worry about?

Answer (Published 1/3/2005)

I don't think you have to get rid of your cats, but you do have to be careful. There is a small chance that contact with their litter pan could lead to an infection that would threaten your pregnancy. The infection, toxoplasmosis, can be passed to humans via cat feces. The parasite that causes the infection is carried by many cats and passed in their stool. Cats pick up the parasite from uncooked meat, and small animals they may kill and eat outdoors. If you have an indoor cat, the likelihood for infection is smaller. The infection doesn't make cats sick so you wouldn't know if your pet was carrying it. Getting toxoplasmosis while pregnant could lead to a spontaneous abortion or miscarriage or can cause blindness, hearing loss, or mental retardation in your baby.

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While this danger is real, it is remote. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), humans are more likely to contract toxoplasmosis from eating undercooked meat or from gardening than they are from contact with a cat. (You can also pick up the parasite from unwashed fruits and vegetables.) Adults infected with toxoplasmosis rarely get sick. If you've been infected in the past, you're probably immune and cannot pass the infection on to your baby. Approximately one-third of women in the United States are immune; the likelihood of immunity is highest among women who have owned cats for a long time. A blood test can tell you whether you've been exposed to toxoplasmosis in the past.

Even if you're not immune, you can reduce your risk, by following the tips below from the CDC:

  • Have someone else change your cat's litter box while you're pregnant. (It is best to disinfect the pan with boiling water for five minutes before refilling it with litter.) If no one else is available, wear rubber gloves while changing the litter, and be sure to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and running water afterwards.
  • If possible, have the litter changed daily. This will reduce the risk.
  • Keep your cat indoors.
  • Don't handle or adopt stray cats, and don't bring a new cat that might have been an outdoor cat into your house.
  • Feed your cat only canned or dry food, not undercooked meat.
  • Wear gloves when gardening, and wash your hands carefully after contact with soil or sand where cat waste may have been deposited.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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