The Downside of Kitties, Dogs, and Turtles During Pregnancy

Many people consider pets members of their families. However, pets may carry diseases that can be dangerous to a pregnant woman and her developing fetus.
The Danger of Pets During Your Pregnancy

Household pets, like cats and dogs, are a part of the family. They give you love and joy, and I'm sure there's no chance they'll be moving out to make room for your baby. But keep in mind that pets can bring more than fun into your home—they bring in diseases that can be dangerous to both you and the fetus.

Cats: Your cat can quite innocently cause some trouble during your pregnancy. Cat feces can contain a microscopic protozoan (a very tiny organism) called Toxoplasma gondii. This protozoan can be passed to a human in two ways:

  • By direct contact. This can happen if the feces are touched while cleaning the litter box or when gardening in an area where a cat has relieved itself.
  • By simply breathing. If the feces are disturbed (say by the way the cat scratches at its litter) and the sacs containing the Toxoplasma gondii become airborne, they can be inhaled into the mouth or nose of a person nearby.

Being infected by this organism causes a condition called toxoplasmosis.

Pregnancy Facts

Toxoplasmosis is rather rare. It is estimated that the chances of contracting toxoplasmosis for the first time during pregnancy are approximately 1 in 1,000. In France (where perhaps there are more cats), toxoplasmosis is more common, jumping to a rate of 10 in 1,000.

The symptoms of toxoplasmosis are quite mild and are often passed off as some kind of cold or flu. An infected person might get a low-grade fever, cough, headache, fatigue, and swollen glands. If you have had a cat in your home for a long time, it's very likely that you've already had toxoplasmosis—this is a good thing! After infected, the body builds up antibodies (disease-fighting cells) to protect itself from a repeat infection.

If you already have toxoplasmosis antibodies, it is unlikely that exposure during pregnancy will cause your baby any harm. (It is estimated that about one half of the American population has been infected.) But if you have never been exposed to toxoplasmosis or if you're not sure, it is very important to protect yourself now. If toxoplasmosis crosses the placenta in the first few months of pregnancy (especially in the second month) it can severely damage the fetus. Problems can range from premature birth or low birthweight to serious central nervous system defects and even stillbirth. Don't let this information scare you. Use it to protect yourself and your baby. Be smart and follow these steps:

  • If you have a cat, take it to your vet to be tested for Toxoplasma gondii. If your cat has an active infection, ask a friend to take care of it until you're further along in your pregnancy. After the sixth month the chances of this organism crossing the placenta are slim.
  • If your cats are not infected, keep them that way: Don't let them eat raw meat and keep them inside as much as possible (where they can't get at mice or birds that might be infected and where they aren't exposed to infected cats).
  • Stay away from the litter box! It must be cleaned daily, but somebody else will have to do the job.
  • Stay away from stray cats and don't hold cats you don't know.
  • Avoid gardening in soil that might be contaminated with cat feces. Always wear gloves.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly. (The ground they fall on before harvest might be contaminated.)
  • Cook all meat thoroughly. Inadequately cooked or cured meat is a main risk factor for infection with toxoplasma.
Daddy Alert!

This is your chance to be the hero. Don't let your wife clean the cat's litter box—that's now your job. Change it daily because the sacs containing Toxoplasma gondii are not infectious for the first 24 hours (although they have the ability to survive in soil and water for as long as 18 months). Wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.

Even if you don't have a cat, you can still be exposed to toxoplasmosis by handling or eating raw meat. The organism is found especially on pork, beef, and mutton. It's a good idea to wear gloves when handling raw meat, cook meat thoroughly, wash your hands with soap before eating, and clean all kitchen counters and utensils exposed to the meat.

Dogs: If your dog has been to the vet this year and is up-to-date on its rabies shots, you shouldn't worry about caring for it during your pregnancy. As an extra precaution, you might have it examined for parasites at regular intervals (especially if it is allowed to run loose). Animal parasites have been known to infect humans. Although the effect of a parasitic infection on a fetus is unknown, the illness experienced by the mother cannot be good for the baby.

Turtles: Pet turtles are on the list of animals to be careful around when you're pregnant. That's because they are known to transmit salmonella bacterial infections to humans. (This is the same bacterium you can get from raw chicken that causes food poisoning.) If you have a turtle, try to avoid touching the animal and the water it swims in. Be sure to wear gloves when you clean the tank or change the water.