Understanding the Risks of Cat Ownership During Pregnancy

Are miscarriage fears real or simply an old wives tales?

Families gather in the belly of pregnant woman.
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There was a time when doctors used to routinely advise pregnant women to avoid cats in the same way they used to tell you to cook pork well done to avoid sugar in hyperactive children.

While there may have once been justifications for these claims — say, prior to the mid-20th century before epidemiology and genetic research proved them wrong — the beliefs have today largely fallen into the realm of an old wives' tale.

In the same way that undercooked pork is unlikely to cause trichinosis, having a cat, or getting scratched by one, is unlikely to increase your risk of a miscarriage.

So, how then did a belief like this begin?

Cats and Toxoplasmosis

It is true that cats can be carriers of a microorganism known as Toxoplasma gondii which causes the disease toxoplasmosis. It is also true that toxoplasmosis is one of the several infections that can cause a miscarriage, usually during the first trimester of pregnancy.

However, it’s a pretty big leap to suggest your cat automatically place you at risk. Studies, in fact, have shown that the likelihood of T. gondii­-induced miscarriage is more associated with the eating of tainted, undercooked meat than having a cat. In almost all but a few cases, cat ownership was rarely considered a problem.

Why Cats Rarely Transmit Toxoplasmosis

By and large, cats are not chronic carriers of T. gondii.

Firstly, they tend to get infected and quickly develop antibodies to neutralize the infection. At this stage, they can no longer transmit the parasite.

So, in order for a house cat to pass toxoplasmosis to its owner:

  • It must have had recent exposure to T. gondii.
  • It will have not yet developed circulating antibodies against the infection.

    Secondly, outdoor cats and strays are more likely to be exposed to T. gondii; toxoplasmosis in indoor cats is actually considered rare. T. gondii is most commonly found in rodents or raw meat, so unless the cat lives exclusively outdoors and fends for itself, is unlikely to be exposed.

    Finally, on the off-chance your cat has active toxoplasmosis, the most likely route of transmission would be through the contact with cat feces. In such case, good hygiene would be all that is needed to avoid not only T. gondii but others types of infections, as well.

    Advice to Cat Owners

    All in all, the risk of a getting toxoplasmosis from your cat is low. With that being said, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest following these precautions to minimize your risk of cat-borne diseases if you are pregnant or immune compromised:

    • Get someone else to change the cat litter. If you can't, wear gloves while changing the litter box and wash your hands with soap and hot water after.
    • Change the cat litter daily. The microorganism is infectious between one and five days after the cat defecates.
    • Do not feed your cat raw meat.
    • Keep your cat indoors.
    • Be careful around stray cats and kittens, and avoid getting a new cat while pregnant.
    • Keep outdoor sandboxes covered, and wear gloves when gardening in case an outdoor cat has defecated in your garden.