Don’t touch that litter box

Pet Talk

Dear Vets:

I am 12 weeks pregnant and have heard that I should not be cleaning my cats’ kitty litter box? Is that trueand why is that so?

It is true that pregnant women should refrain from cleaning the kitty litter box where possible. This is because of an organism called toxoplasmosis.

Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by a protozoan called toxoplasma gondii. It affects most animals, insects and fish, but most notably cats, sheep and humans.

The organism is transmitted by one of two ways: through the ingestion of eggs (or oocysts) that are shed in cat feces, or by the ingestion of the adult toxoplasma form in raw meat from food animals such as pigs and sheep. A person who has ingested either form of toxoplasma is likely to become infected and may suffer varying degrees of illness.

The cause for concern however, is if the person infected is a pregnant women. This is because the organism has the potential to cross the placenta and cause damage on the developing fetus. Women who are infected with toxoplasma early in their pregnancy are at risk for a miscarriage or stillbirth or their unborn child has the potential to develop a severe neurological disorder or blindness.

There is no need to get rid of the cat though, since infection can be prevented through the following measures:

• Always be careful when handling raw meat (especially lamb and pork). The cat is over emphasized as a carrier of toxoplasmosis. Most pregnant women that contract the disease did so from eating the adult form of toxoplasma in raw meat.

• Wash your hands diligently after handling raw meat or coming into contact with cat feces.

• Get someone else to clean the kitty litter box daily. The eggs require 24-48 hours to grow into a form that is dangerous to people, therefore cleaning the box once to twice daily will prevent exposure.

• Always wear rubber gloves while gardening since many stray cats will defecate in the soil. Likewise, do not dump the dirty litter in the backyard. For this same reason all vegetables should be washed and peeled before consumption.

• Do not allow your cat to eat raw meat and prevent the cat from hunting by keeping it indoors at all times. Cats get toxoplasmosis from ingesting infected raw meat.

• Do not allow cats into barns or other areas where food animals live. Food animals can become infected with the disease by ingesting cat feces.

• Do not drink milk that is unpasteurized, especially goats’ milk and cheese.

• Remember, you can only get toxoplasmosis from your cat by orally ingesting the organisms’ eggs in the cats’ feces. You cannot get the disease from hugging or petting your cat.

There is a blood test that can be performed at your doctors’ office before or during early pregnancy to determine if you have been exposed or infected by toxoplasmosis. If your blood titre is positive, then you are immune and you will not get infected again nor will you be able to pass the organism to your unborn child.

Congratulations and good luck!