“Congratulations!” says your doctor, “You’re pregnant.” It’s happy news. But then the doctor asks if you have a cat, and tells you solemnly not to scoop the litter box. Doctors understandably like to play it safe, but it’s not necessary to overreact, especially when it comes to your cat and your health during pregnancy. Cats and pregnant women can co-exist safely — and have been doing so for thousands of years.
The concern, small though it is, regards a parasite called toxoplasma gondii, which can cause an infection called toxoplasmosis. Cats are one of the hosts that can carry and pass this parasite to humans through infectious cysts shed in their stool. While toxoplasmosis generally causes mild flu-like symptoms in humans that resolve on their own in a few days, it is very dangerous to fetuses in the first trimester of pregnancy.
However, that said, toxoplasmosis is only infectious under extremely particular — and unlikely — circumstances. “A lot of things have to happen,” says Drew Weigner, DVM, a board-certified feline specialist. “A cat has to get a recent infection, it has to be shedding the cysts, the stool has to have been in the litter box for more than 24 hours, you’d have to get some of the stool in your mouth or eye, and you’d have to be in your first trimester — all of those things would have to happen.”
Cats shed toxoplasma cysts (the egg stage) in their feces three to 10 days after eating infected tissues. They will shed the cysts for up to 14 days, and afterward it is unlikely that they will ever shed them again — even after repeated exposure. So only a recent infection is contagious. In order to get a recent infection, your cat would have to have eaten an infected mouse, which can only happen if your cat hunts outdoors or if you have a current rodent infestation — which, as Weigner points out, generally doesn’t if there is indeed a cat living in your house.
“Indoor cats that do not hunt have virtually no risk of infection,” says Elaine Wexler-Mitchell, DVM, ABVP diplomate in feline practice at The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, California. No risk, that is, unless they are on a raw food diet. That’s because the parasite is transmissible to both cats and humans through raw or undercooked meat. In fact, your chances of contracting toxoplasmosis are much, much greater by handling raw meat or gardening in infected soil than by getting it from your cat.
Even if your cat does go outside or has caught a mouse recently, there’s still no need to worry. The cysts do not become infectious to other animals and humans until one to four days have passed. So if you scoop the litter box promptly, you’ve avoided the problem.
To be extra safe, Weigner suggests having someone else scoop and change the litter for you. He suggests single mothers wear gloves and use litter box liners — that minimizes the risk of missing any stool hiding under the litter or on the side of the box. Wearing a mask while changing the litter isn’t necessary, as the cyst is too heavy to stay airborne for long. During the first trimester, if there is no one else to take over litter box duties, “I wouldn’t scoop the litter every 24 hours; I would change it every 24 hours,” Weigner says.
And remember, even if you get a microscopic cyst on your hand, you’d have to touch your mouth or your eye without washing your hands to become infected. Who doesn’t wash their hands after scooping the litter box? “Really, the bottom line, if you have a cat, whether it goes outside or not, is get someone else to change the litter box, wash your hands after you pet your cat, and don’t worry about it after the first few months anyway,” says Weigner.
“Cats and pregnant moms can peacefully co-exist,” he says.. You always have to follow your obstetrician’s advice — unless they advise you to get rid of your cat. If they say that, then they don’t know about toxoplasmosis and that means they’re out of date.”