Factsheet 1. Toxoplasmosis, Pregnant Women, and Cats
What is Toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by a common microscopic parasite named Toxoplasma gondii, which can infect all mammals and birds and is found throughout the world.
What are the symptoms in people?
Most people will never know they have had it. Some people may have mild flu-like symptoms while around 10-20% of people infected will develop symptoms similar to glandular fever and swollen lymph nodes.
How does someone become infected?
People become infected with toxoplasma when they inadvertently eat the parasite, which can be found in meat, cat faeces, the soil where cats defecate, and unpasteurised goats’ milk.
Toxoplasmosis cannot be caught by stroking a cat or simply having a cat as a pet. The infection is only passed through direct contact with the infected faeces of a cat and then ingesting the parasite.
How do cats become infected?
Cats generally pick up the parasite when they hunt and eat infected prey. Healthy cats rarely get sick themselves from the parasite, but when they are infected for the first time, they can shed it in their faeces. The parasite can infect people who ingest them between 24 hours to 14 days after the faeces have been passed.
How common is it to become infected from cats’ faeces?
It is thought that very few cats are actually infected at any one time – best estimates say less than 1% of cats in the UK have active toxoplasmosis.
The risk of contracting toxoplasmosis from ingesting cat faeces is much lower than it is from handling and eating undercooked meat. If doctors are going to advise pregnant women to “get rid” of anything, it should actually be meat not their pet cats!!
Is it dangerous to pregnant women?
The likelihood of a pregnant woman coming into contact with infected cat faeces when such a small number of cats have the active infection (<1% of UK cat population) and then ingesting the infected faeces is rare. Only around 2,000 pregnant women per year in the UK contract toxoplasmosis (which may have come from other sources, such as undercooked meat and dairy products made from unpasteurised goats’ milk).
Most pregnant women may never know they have been infected unless they experience problems during their pregnancy which result in their being tested. If a pregnant woman becomes infected with Toxoplasmosis for the first time while she is pregnant, she may miscarry or give birth to a child who suffers from birth defects.
Does the cat have to go?
NO!!!! To recommend that a pregnant woman gets rid of her cat(s) is taking the easy way out. It might take a bit of time and effort for a doctor to explain the real risks of toxoplasmosis and how to reduce them, but this is exactly what is needed to prevent unnecessary suffering for mothers, families, and family pets.
Should cats and/ or women be tested?
A cat will test positive if s/he has been exposed to the parasite at any point in his/her life. However, the test is meaningless because the parasite can only pass to humans during a very short 2-week period which starts 24 hours after the cat passes infected faeces.
If a woman tests positive, it means she has been infected in the past and, even if she is exposed again during her pregnancy, her unborn child will not be affected.
If she is negative, then she should take precautions by following five simple steps.
Five simple steps to protect pregnant women (and their unborn babies)
1. Get another member of the household to clean out the litter tray.
2. If a pregnant woman does have to clean out the litter tray, she should do so at least once daily. The parasite must spend at least 24 hours outside of the cat’s body before it is capable of being infectious, so cleaning the litter tray frequently will virtually eliminate the chances of disease transmission.
3. Wear gloves when cleaning out litter trays or handling potentially contaminated soil (eg when gardening) or uncooked meat and wash hands thoroughly afterwards.
4. Thoroughly cook meat before eating it.
5. Keep cats indoors to reduce the chances of their eating infected prey.
It is estimated that between a third and half of the UK population will have the infection at some point in their lives. Once you have had the infection, you are then immune for life – you cannot catch it again.
Toxoplasmosis only presents a problem if a woman is infected for the first time during pregnancy.
Toxoplasmosis spores are only transmitted by ingestion. In order to contract toxoplasmosis, a pregnant woman would have to make contact with contaminated faeces and then, without washing her hands, touch her mouth or otherwise transmit the contaminated faecal matter to her digestive system. If she takes sensible precautions, such as regular hand washing, the risk is minimal.
Cats do not cause risk – because the toxoplasma parasite completes its lifecycle in the gut of a cat – it is the faeces of an infected cat which presents the risk. However, the toxoplasma spores are only released in the faeces at least 24 hours after being passed; therefore, changing the cat’s litter daily (if possible, not by the pregnant woman) eliminates this risk.