Are litterboxes safe during pregnancy?

litterboxpregnant_large 

Congratulations! You’re pregnant!

As the initial excitement wears off, you start to think about the things you’ll have to avoid for the next nine months to keep your baby safe and healthy. A common concern that comes to mind for many cat owners: is my beloved cat a danger to my unborn baby?

What can I get from my cat?

Cats can host a number of parasitic agents, including fleas, intestinal parasites and bacterium. Although some will make your cat obviously ill, your kitty can carry some agents while appearing healthy and symptom free.

What should I be most worried about?

The most concerning agents are two in particular: Bartonella henselae (cat scratch disease) and Toxoplasma gondii (toxoplasmosis). Cat scratch disease is a poorly understood infection caused by a bacteria. Immune-compromised individuals, including pregnant women, are generally at an increased risk. Since studies looking specifically at cat scratch disease in pregnant women are rare, pregnant women should approach cats with caution. This disease is spread when an infected cat licks a human’s open wound, or bites or scratches them. Care should be taken to avoid unpredictable cats that could scratch or bite.

The more commonly heard of disease is Toxoplasma gondii, or toxoplasmosis. This is a parasite that’s passed in an infected cat’s feces. It’s transmitted to humans through the fecal-oral route.

Does every cat carry T. gondii?

No. Cats transmit it from one cat to another through the fecal-oral route. Generally speaking, indoor-only cats are less likely to carry toxoplasmosis than indoor-outdoor cats.

Can I test my cat for toxoplasmosis so I don’t have to worry?

Measurement of two types of antibodies to T. gondii in blood tests for your cat can potentially help diagnose toxoplasmosis, but the test is ultimately going to be of little value. T. gondii is generally only shed in the first 10 days or so after a cat is infected. If the results come back positive, you could be left with a false sense of security thinking you can’t get it from your cat (because it has already been infected and likely past its shedding period). If the results came back negative, they could still be positive (and haven’t yet developed detectable antibodies) or they could contract it at any point in the future.

Does every stool sample contain toxoplasmosis?

No. In fact, no stool actually contains infective material when it’s first defecated. It takes one to five days to transform into an infective state. Therefore, if every fecal sample was picked up immediately, it’s technically not infectious.

So it’s completely fine for a pregnant woman to scoop litterboxes, if done in a timely fashion?

Unfortunately, not quite. Due to the residual fecal material that may be in the box (especially dependent on litter type), infective toxoplasmosis oocysts may be lurking in the litter material. So even if you scooped the litter immediately upon defecation, a risk still remains.

Are litterboxes the only source of toxoplasmosis?

No. In fact they’re the least common source of potential infection. In the U.S., you’re far more likely to acquire toxoplasmosis from undercooked meat than from your cat.

What if I have absolutely no one else to scoop the litterboxes for me?

Although it’s not ideal, abiding by proper safety precautions should minimize the risk. Wear gloves, change the litterbox daily and wash your hands thoroughly when you’re done. Keep cats indoors to reduce the chances of them becoming infected with Toxoplasma and hold off an adopting or handling any stray cats, especially kittens, during pregnancy.

Missy Matusicky is a veterinarian and assistant professor in The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.