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I recently found out that I am pregnant.  My husband and I have two cats and he is worried about toxoplasmosis.  He thinks we should get rid of the cats!  What exactly is toxoplasmosis and do I really need to re-home my cats?

Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite that can infect a large range of birds and mammals; however the definitive hosts are members of the felid family including domestic cats.  Cats become infected with T. gondii by ingesting infected small mammals and birds or, more rarely, by ingesting contaminated soil or water. Other animals including humans are infected by eating infected meat, by ingestion of feces of a cat that has itself recently been infected, and by transmission from mother to fetus.

After a cat has been exposed, multiplication of the parasite occurs in the intestines.  The eggs of the parasite, or oocysts, can be found in the cat’s feces at 3 days after infection and may be released for up to 20 days. Oocysts sporulate (become infectious) outside the cat within 1-5 days and remain viable in the environment for several months.  Cats generally develop immunity after their first exposure and thus cats will only shed once in their lifetime.

Healthy human adults that are infected usually do not develop any noticeable symptoms; occasionally mild flu like symptoms are recognized.  The greatest risk is to those who are immunocompromised and to fetuses infected in the first trimester of pregnancy.  Women who have been exposed to toxoplasmosis in the past likely have immunity which imparts immunity to the fetus.  A simple blood test can determine whether or not a woman has had previous exposure and therefore whether or not she is at risk. If a woman receives her first exposure to T. gondii while pregnant, the fetus is at particular risk for congenital toxoplasmosis which can cause serious neurological problems.

Because of their fastidious nature, the passing of non-infective oocysts, and the short duration of oocyst shedding, direct contact with cats is not thought to be a primary risk for human infection.  Women are far more likely to contract toxoplasmosis from eating infected meat or from gardening.  That being said, pregnant cat owners should never handle cat feces, especially in the first trimester.  In general cat owners can reduce their pets’ exposure risk by keeping all cats indoors and not feeding them raw meat.

It is important to talk to your doctor and follow his or her recommendations; however there is no need to give up your beloved feline friend if you follow some simple hygenic precautions.

Sarah Wagner