Are litter boxes safe during pregnancy?

Pregnant woman with a cat in her hands

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?

Can my cat make me sick when I’m pregnant?

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

What should I be most worried about?

The most concerning infections are two in particular: Bartonella henselae, also called cat scratch disease or “cat scratch fever,” and Toxoplasma gondii, more commonly known as toxoplasmosis.

Cat scratch disease is a poorly understood infection caused by a bacteria. Immune-compromised individuals, including pregnant people, are generally at an increased risk. Since studies looking specifically at cat scratch disease in pregnant humans are rare, pregnant people should approach cats with caution. Research is still needed to further describe how cat scratch disease would affect a fetus throughout various stages of pregnancy.

Cat scratch disease spreads 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 most common disease is toxoplasmosis. This is a parasite that’s passed in an infected cat’s feces. It’s transmitted to humans through the fecal-oral route. If a someone is infected during pregnancy, the most common risk is miscarriage or stillbirth. Rarely, the baby would survive but with birth defects.

The result is timing dependent: There’s a lesser risk of the infection spreading to baby in early pregnancy, but if they do get it, consequences are more serious. Later in pregnancy, a baby is more likely to contract toxoplasmosis, but problems that might arise are thought to be less serious.

One bit of hope I can provide is that for toxoplasmosis, even if you do become infected during pregnancy, the baby could still be OK.

If you have questions and concerns about your exposure regarding either of these, it’s important for you to contact your doctor.

Ohio State Health & Discovery guide to a healthy pregnancy

Does every cat carry T. gondii?

No. Cats transmit Toxoplasma gondii 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. However, you must consider where your cat came from and if they spent much time outdoors and/or with many other cats prior to being adopted.

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.

If my cat has toxoplasmosis, 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.

Is it OK for a pregnant person to scoop a litter box if it’s 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 litter boxes 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 litter box for me?

Although it’s not ideal, abiding by proper safety precautions should minimize the risk. Wear gloves, change the litter box 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 adopting or handling any stray cats, especially kittens, during pregnancy.

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