Pregnant and Owning a Cat: The Health Concerns You Should Know About

Pregnant women must take extra precautions when it comes to cats. Cats can become infected with toxoplasma. Catching this parasite from your cat during pregnancy can cause a miscarriage or potentially severe long-term health problems for your baby. To ensure safety, pregnant moms should practice diligent hygiene habits around their feline friends to avoid infection risk.

Key takeaways:

Are cats harmful during pregnancy?

The primary danger cats pose to pregnancy is the risk of toxoplasmosis infection. In some cases, babies can become seriously ill due to the disease passed from mother to child in the womb — potentially leading to a miscarriage or long-term health issues like impaired vision or intellectual disability.

Ways to contract toxoplasmosis in pregnancy

Litter boxes and dirt where cats have been are the most common ways to be exposed to toxoplasmosis.

Suppose a cat eats a small animal with the toxoplasma parasite. If it has never had the infection before, it becomes a carrier. It passes along millions of parasites in its poop for up to three weeks. These parasites are in the form of a cyst — called an oocyst — and can stay infectious in the soil for up to a year.

Cats are the only animals that pass along active oocytes through their poop. You can not get toxoplasmosis from contact with an infected human or another type of animal.

Animals who are infected have the toxoplasma parasite in their body. Even though cats are a significant source of toxoplasmosis infections, almost 50% of infections are caused by eating undercooked meats.

You can come in contact with the parasite that causes the infection through:

  • Eating raw or undercooked meat or shellfish.
  • Eating unwashed fruits and vegetables.
  • Touching cat litter or poop.
  • Touching kitchen utensils and cutting boards used to prepare undercooked meat, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Touching dirt or sand.
  • Touching stray cats.

In which trimester is toxoplasmosis most harmful to the baby?

It is most harmful to the baby to catch toxoplasmosis in the first trimester, when critical development occurs in their new organs. There is only a small risk of passing the infection to your baby in the first trimester — about 6%. Later in pregnancy, the chance of passing the disease across the placenta to your baby becomes higher: 60% to 81% in the third trimester. However, a baby is less likely to have severe effects if they catch the infection later in pregnancy.

If you are diagnosed with toxoplasmosis, some treatments can make it less likely to pass it to your baby and make the effects on the baby less severe.

What are the odds of getting toxoplasmosis when you are pregnant?

The odds of getting a toxoplasmosis infection in pregnancy in the United States are 2 to 10 in 1,000. The odds of having a baby affected by toxoplasmosis are 1 to 2 in 10,000.

The likelihood that you will get toxoplasmosis in pregnancy can vary greatly depending on if you are in risky situations where you may be exposed. The overall risk is small, but you should follow safe practices to keep it that way.

How to know if you have toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis infection is only dangerous to your baby if you get it for the first time during pregnancy or just before pregnancy. It is common to get infected during childhood. Doctors do not routinely test for toxoplasmosis in the United States.

Most of the time, toxoplasmosis does not cause any symptoms. When it does, it could feel like the flu and cause:

  • Muscle aches;
  • Tiredness;
  • Fever;
  • Swollen lymph nodes;
  • Headache;
  • Blurry vision;
  • Eye redness.

Talk to your healthcare team if you think a cat or raw meat exposed you to toxoplasmosis, or if you have any of these symptoms. Your doctor may test for infection with a blood test.

How do I protect myself and my baby?

If you can not avoid exposure, wear gloves and wash your hands well before eating. If you have a high-risk job, like working in a veterinary office or an animal shelter, talk to your doctor to see if testing would be a good choice.

Do cats act differently when their owner is pregnant?

Cats have enhanced senses. They can feel changes in your body temperature and smell changes in your scent caused by pregnancy hormones. They also are creatures of habit and routine, meaning that changes in you can cause them to make behavioral changes.

No specific studies show how cat behavior changes during their owner’s pregnancy. Plenty of reports from individuals suggest cats are very aware of a change in their owner during pregnancy.

Owners report their cats have become more clingy and affectionate. They can also develop behavioral issues, such as not using the litter box, scratching furniture, and yowling at night.

Your cat may need more affection when you are pregnant. You can also talk to your veterinarian about solutions for behavioral problems that arise.

Is it okay to sleep with a cat when you are pregnant?

While there is some risk of increased exposure to cat feces if you allow your cat to sleep in your bed, remember that it takes a full day after leaving the cat for the poop to become infectious. If your cat is actively infected, it will shed many oocytes and could have some remaining on its fur.

Think about the likelihood they could be exposed and have their first infection. Do they go outside? Were they recently a stray cat? Are they very young?

A kitten who goes outside is much more likely to pass on toxoplasmosis than an older cat who does not. Being near your cat is safe as long as the risk of your cat having an active infection is low.

Keeping a beloved cat does not have to pose a risk to you or your baby. The chance of catching an infection from an indoor cat is minimal. If you have an outdoor cat, some extra precautions can keep you and your baby safe.

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